Before concluding that today’s New York Times article on Taliban outreach to Karzai means that an Afghan settlement is on the horizon, consider today’s other news from Afghanistan, which includes a suicide attack that killed the Deputy Governor of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. The point is the Taliban may be reaching out to the Karzai government less to negotiate a compromise and more toward establishing a perception of their inevitable return to power in the country. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that key leaders of Afghanistan’s ethnic minority communities oppose President Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, which they say could lead to the Taliban’s return to power and the outbreak of ethnic-based civil war.
Good strategy on the U.S. part would involve willingness to back negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban leadership only when an assessment is made that the Taliban is ready for compromise. Such a compromise would have to involve the Taliban breaking ranks with al-Qaeda and disavowing the global terrorist agenda and committing to maintaining rights for women and minorities. Otherwise, U.S. blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan over the last nine years will have been for nothing.
As U.S. diplomats learned in the 1990s through numerous face-to-face meetings with the Taliban that went nowhere, much time can be wasted in seeking negotiations for negotiations sake and without a strategy for influencing the other side’s calculations. While reintegration of insurgents is part and parcel of any good counterinsurgency strategy, it is necessary to distinguish this process from one that would legitimize a harsh and violent Islamist ideology, such as the Taliban pursued during their time in power. As Mitchell Reiss, author of Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists, recently noted, the Obama administration needs to “increase American leverage and revise the Taliban’s calculations” before it can negotiate a settlement that protects vital U.S. national security interests.
American leverage with Pakistan’s military leaders has remained largely elusive when it comes to shifting their strategy on Afghanistan. Billions in U.S. aid to Pakistan have helped encourage stability and security inside Pakistan and cooperation in breaking up global terrorist networks. However, U.S. and Pakistan strategies toward Afghanistan are still at odds with one another and create tension in the relationship.
So rather than being led down the garden path by dreams of Taliban reconciliation, U.S. policy instead needs to focus more intently on creating the conditions in the region that will ultimately bring about real compromise from the Taliban. This includes – but is not limited to — developing more effective policies toward Pakistan that encourage Islamabad to shut down the Taliban’s sanctuary.
The world cannot afford to see Afghanistan turn back into a terrorist safe haven like it was under Taliban rule throughout the late 1990s. The first step to avoiding such an end-state is to take off the rose-colored glasses when it comes to Taliban reconciliation and develop hard-headed strategies that change Islamabad’s calculations vis a vis the Taliban.