US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad
said on Wednesday that direct talks with the Taliban “will happen very soon.”
It was not clear if the ambassador was referring to Taliban-US talks - which have seen four iterations to date, or direct Taliban-Afghan government talks - which the Taliban have repeatedly refused.
If the latter, then it is a significant development. The US has held direct talks with the Taliban in Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, the Taliban have continuously refused to meet with any Afghan government representatives as they believe the Afghan government is nothing more than a puppet of the US and holds no legitimacy. In the last round of talks in the UAE, the Afghan government quietly sent a delegation hoping to get a seat at the table, but the Taliban refused to meet with them and broke of the talks.
If the Taliban have suddenly had a change of heart, it will not be the first time. For over a decade they refused to meet with any US representative until all US forces were fully withdrawn, and until the land was free of “foreign invaders.” But after seventeen years of conflict even the Taliban decided to give it a try.
A change of heart
One possible explanation for the about-turn is the additional pressure on the Taliban from the new government in Pakistan. Last week, a senior military leader of the Taliban, Hafiz Mohibullah, who has been intimately involved in talks with the United States, was himself arrested in Peshawar Pakistan – and subsequently released. It is possible that the Pakistani intelligence service made it clear to him that Pakistan’s new government is expecting to adopt a zero-tolerance policy of allowing the use of it’s territory as a safe haven.
Nevertheless, this new approach is not without its problems. At the heart of the US mission, is a fight for the allegiance of the Afghan people. It is their allegiance, which is key to the other priorities: protecting them from Taliban forces, building up the Afghan national forces, boosting the government’s legitimacy, and improving the coordination of civilian aid.
Success with these aims depends on the support, active or passive, of ordinary Afghan elders, men and women. But the same is true of the Afghan Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans who, daily, choose to get involved in the Taliban insurgency, or to involve themselves in the US-supported projects such as signing up to join the new local guardian force operating in the Wardak province, the fledgling national army, or local or national democracy. If we acknowledge this, we acknowledge that regarding the war in Afghanistan in simplistic Manichaean terms - save as many good guys as possible while taking out as many bad guys as possible - is a mistake. The ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are often the same people. Rather the US must play a game of incentives - maximizing Afghans’ incentive to participate and minimizing their incentive to fight.
Including the Taliban in the political process
There is little the US can do to minimize the incentive to fight, especially for those Afghans motivated by the mere presence in their country of Western, non-Muslim forces or by skewed interpretations of a rural conservative brand of Islam. But there are things they can do to maximize the incentive to participate.
Foremost amongst them is bringing the Taliban into the political process. I believe the pros of this approach outbalance the cons.
The first con is that it will mean some unpalatable results. The Taliban’s often brutal form of conservative justice shocks the liberal sensibilities of the western electorates paying for the war. Bringing them into the political process will mean conceding that where, for example, young brides wed older men, US troops are not the right means to change those customs and attitudes.
The answer to this is that we are getting these unpalatable results already - we have the worst of both worlds. President Karzai recognized this and made these kinds of concessions to bolster his legitimacy. Witness the law passed before the election allowing Shia men to deny their wives sustenance if they do not satisfy their husbands, and which requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. These helped to shore up his power, but did not substantially neutralize the Taliban’s desire to fight by bringing them into the political process.
The pro is that bringing the Taliban into the political process will mean setting up a thoroughgoing participative process. One of the problems with the electoral system we implemented was that traditional power brokers such as warlords had such a central role in ensuring support for the candidates. For example, the government paid insurgent leaders in exchange for their agreement not to attack voters or polling stations, according to the former head of Afghanistan’s Intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh.
Nobody expected an advanced democratic process. But we can reasonably expect that next time, votes are a better representation of opinion on the ground, rather than who has been bought to ‘deliver’ a particular province or area for a candidate. This will require that the differences over how Afghanistan is governed be expressed in debate, rather than merely fought over, and this is the real advantage of bringing ex-militants into the process as much as possible. This process will necessarily start with negotiating with some people who the US has been fighting. That will not be easy to accept.
But participation is the first step towards a self-sustaining process. And that is essential to boosting the legitimacy of the Afghan government.