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Dialogue with the Taliban – challenging assumptions

May 3, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary:  With meaningful dialogue with the Taliban still looking remote, perhaps it is time to question some of the main assumptions…

Photos of Afghan maps 006There has been much debate and comment, supported by very little information, on the subject of dialogue with the Taliban.  The talks still appear to be going nowhere – lack of clarity on most issues appear likely to blight the prospects – who is talking, on whose behalf, for what agenda, etc…

It strikes me that there are a few assumptions being made by the media, by governments and even by very prominent regional experts, which it might be worth questioning.  I would really welcome any thoughts…

Assumption 1:  Why do we assume that a political settlement has to be achieved by 2014?

The deadline is artificial, based on Western desire to get the hell out.  If anything, the race for settlement before the end of 2014 highlights two very big, fat, unhelpful negatives:

1.       US desire to create something that resembles a settlement in order to declare “victory”.  A Bush-ian “mission accomplished” gesture that will almost guarantee a lack of longevity.

2.       It confirms, almost by definition, that the Afghan government left behind will be too weak to organise a political solution – or even hold together – all by itself.

Assumption 2: Why do we assume that imposing humiliating talk pre-conditions upon the Taliban, to the effect that, amongst others, they must denounce Al Qaeda, renounce violence and recognise the current constitution, is likely to get the Taliban to the negotiating table?

Shame is surely not a reliable or constructive emotion to rely upon when it comes to delicate peace talks, particularly when it is not really clear to anyone except the ISAF media team that the Taliban have actually been defeated.  NATO is the one pulling out and is no longer trumpeting “failure is not an option”.    Incidentally, the “avoid humiliating your opponent” motif is something that the Taliban would also do well to pay close attention to…

Assumption 3: Why should we assume that a myriad of local, regional and international actors must all be involved in any settlement and all agree at the same time?

I am thinking of warlords, Afghan government, political factions, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian States, India, China, ISAF, NATO, United States, NGOs, UN, etc.  Ahmed Rashid said recently it was encouraging that the Taliban were now also talking to the former Northern Alliance.  Why should we think that multiple separate dialogues are a good idea?  Trying to get multiple actors to align themselves into the correct permutation might take years.  I have much sympathy for Karzai’s complaint that structures parallel to the Afghan government are greatly undermining government prospects.  Is there any way it might be possible to press for the exclusion of all except Afghans and a very small team of neutral, recognised international mediation experts?  So we have the Afghan government talking to the Taliban with a handful of neutral experts in the room to facilitate.  Why is it a good thing that the Taliban are talking to the US (and openly stating that they talk to the US because the Afghan government is a puppet) and not the Afghan government?  How is this “Afghan-led”?  Isn’t the international community merely confirming that the Afghan government is not legitimate?   

Assumption 4: Why should we assume that a political settlement has to be achieved at all?

Or, at any rate, within the next ten years.  The conflict is complex and intractable.  Perhaps Galtung’s concept of “negative peace”, i.e. an absence of conflict, should be the more minimal goal to be aspired to for the time being?  Maybe an absence of fighting might be enough for the first few years, to enable society to rebuild and humanitarian development to take place.  Let tempers cool and time heal things a little, before we address decisions about governments, constitutions, balance of power etc. which could be (should be?) postponed on the grounds of too painful, too difficult, too likely to re-trigger conflict.  Let’s leave that difficult bit for a decade.  Perhaps it would be better if fighting were allowed to die down gradually, amidst various local truces and an absence of western “infidels” to fight.  No one has to admit defeat but, after 5, 10 years (or whatever) the incentives for violence have been significantly reduced after significant injections of international economic assistance and efforts to develop the political components of the Taliban.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. rahim permalink
    May 4, 2013 9:15 am

    In this game plan you have completely left out the Catalyst and Afghan’s nemesis Pakistan – one of the prime party in this game. Why do you think the Pak establishment would bid by your plan – despite the proposed plan not serving her desired end-state in this Great Game!

  2. May 5, 2013 9:59 pm

    Hi Rahim, you are right of course – it is naive to expect all the old favourites to instantly cease meddling. But I was trying in the first instannce to question the overall assumption that a very complex issue can only be solved by involving complex layers – and sub-layers – of actors. Getting all the interests of all these (very) different moving parts to align might never happen. And it is stopping Afghans talking to Afghans. Isn’t there something to be said for trying to minimise (while admitting that covert activity will probably continue) the number of groups involved?

    Thanks for your input


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