Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.
Is the Afghan peace process starting up again? If so, why are both the Taliban and the Obama Administration downplaying recent developments?
Over the weekend, a representative from the Afghan Government’s High Peace Council met with emissaries from the Taliban Hizb-i-Islam in Kyoto, in what may signal the revitalization of the Afghan peace process. The talks followed a “brainstorming” meeting in Paris last week in which Taliban and Afghan government representatives discussed possible changes to the country’s constitution that would allow for a political settlement and an end to the current war.
Although the discussions don’t appear to have made much substantive headway, the very fact that the Taliban sent a high-level political envoy to meet with a representative of the Karzai government is itself a promising sign since the insurgent group has stated time and again that it will only negotiate with American forces — not their “puppet” government in Kabul.
Of course, the Taliban are sticking to their we-ain’t-talking-to-Karzai line. According to a statement released on its website:
The Islamic Emirate sent its representative to this conference only and only so it can clarify its stance to the world regarding the affair of Afghanistan. Some faces and media outlets have distorted the meaning of this trip of Islamic Emirate and have said that the representative of Islamic Emirate has begun formal negotiations with the peace council representatives of the stooge Kabul regime and have agreed upon creating a joint commission. Other media outlets have added that the representatives of Islamic Emirate have also made a similar trip to France and have negotiated about peace.
We must make it very clear that dispatching a representative to Japan was not for meeting with someone or talking about peace and neither have there been any discussions or agreements made about setting up a joint commission for future peace talks. On the other hand, the Islamic Emirate has never sent a delegation or a representative or a message to France and neither is the Japan matter connected to the conference in France.
The Islamic Emirate has repeatedly stated that the Afghan problem has two sides. As long as the matter with America (talks which are currently suspended) is not addressed, talking with the administration of Karzai is pointless.
Why would the insurgent organization send a delegate to a peace conference if such efforts are pointless? Given how difficult it is for Taliban members to travel internationally, wouldn’t a simple clarification email have sufficed? A text? A tweet? (I assume they have a Twitter account. Al-Shabaab does.)
The reality is that the Taliban are caught in the revolutionary’s trap: They need to negotiate to achieve political ends, but can’t sell out lest they lose their followers. At least not right away. So they negotiate while claiming they’re still hardcore.
Neither the Taliban nor NATO can win the conflict militarily in the short term. Even after the exit of foreign troops — which won’t include special operations forces and CIA hit squads — the Taliban would still have to fight for control over Afghanistan. This may prove more difficult now than it was back in the ’90s since their opponents are today more effectively united and can count on American arms and training for years to come. The likely outcome: more civil war and military stalemate.
Negotiations may thus provide the Taliban with a more attractive option, if they can get substantial autonomy in a decentralized Afghanistan and are recognized as a legitimate political force. In addition, talks can be used to create alliances and make deals with their Pashtun and non-Pashtun opponents, thus consolidating their power.
But since this outcome isn’t a certainty, the group needs to keep on fighting. To do so, it must maintain the trust of mid-level commanders and the rank-and-file. However, this is difficult to do when one is talking to the enemy. Footsoldiers are less willing to sacrifice their lives if they think the leaders are preparing to sell them out. Revolutionary rhetoric can help holding onto this trust, especially when its backed by action. Thus, talking and fighting.
The Obama Administration is also trying to have it both ways. Like the Taliban, Administration officials are downplaying the significance of these recent talks. According to the New York Times:
American officials said that while any and all contacts between the Afghan government and Taliban and other insurgent groups were helpful — Washington’s official policy is that any peace deal must be made by Afghans, not Americans — they did not put much stake in the two recent meetings.
One official, who asked not to be named to avoid damaging relations with his Afghan counterparts, cautioned against “overhyping” the contacts. The Afghan government has repeatedly tried and failed to open parallel negotiating tracks with the Taliban. “Mostly, they are finding people whose influence with the leadership is limited, maybe less,” the official said of the Taliban representatives whom the Afghan government has engaged.
The main American effort to open peace negotiations remains centered on the stalled talks in Qatar, where Taliban representatives are supposed to be opening an office. But those talks, which became public this year after months of secret negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban, were suspended by the insurgents in March.
Team Obama faces a particular problem: Democratic governments don’t “talk with terrorists,” especially not during an election year. When news broke that the Administration planned to release five key detainees from Guantanamo — a “good faith gesture” demanded by the Taliban - Republicans pounced. Since the Taliban soon withdrew from the talks process, Obama could quietly shelve the matter. (Incidentally, the Administration may be planning to transfer some detainees from Guantanamo to Bagram. The Taliban have categorically rejected this, demanding instead the unconditional release of detainees.)
Negotiations with the Taliban could provide Romney with a way to finally distinguish his militarism from Obama’s militarism. The GOP candidate tried to use the talks card a few months back, but it got drowned out in all the hoopla of the primaries. With November looming, the Obama Administration may fear that this ploy could now work.
“Talking to terrorists” is among the worst political sins. Though the Taliban are technically not “terrorists” — they largely engage in guerrilla tactics and generally target military forces rather than civilians — this distinction may not matter. In the public debate, the Taliban and al Qaeda are often purposely conflated. Furthermore, the public doesn’t seem to favor negotiations: back in January, a Rasmussen poll found that 54% of the public wasn’t against the proposition of talking with the Taliban.
Of course, 74% of Americans want out of this war. Since a military victory isn’t viable, making a deal with the Taliban — one that ideally protects women and minorities within a marginally democratic framework — may be the only way out.
For now, it appears that both the Taliban and the Obama Administration are playing it hypocritically cool, talking and fighting at the same time, neither sabotaging the process, nor doing too much to move it forward.