Having inherited this mess, and having so far failed to resolve it either through victory or negotiation, how should the Obama administration proceed as it begins its second term? The first work that US officials should read in this regard is the last chapter in Talibanistan, the Afghan expert Thomas Ruttig’s essay “Negotiations with the Taliban”—a model of lucid analysis. As Ruttig writes, central to the problem is the number of forces and persons involved. A short and by no means exhaustive list of these includes, on the anti-Taliban side: the US government and military (which of course have their own serious differences); the Karzai presidency and clan, and their immediate allies; non-Pashtun warlords and other leaders opposed to the Taliban; and Westernized Afghan officials and NGO figures in Kabul.
Among the armed opposition, the list includes the Taliban under Mullah Omar (which also has potentially serious internal divisions); the Haqqani network; the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the remnants of al-Qaeda in the region; the Pakistani Taliban; and anti-Indian terrorist groups based in Pakistan, some now in rebellion against the Pakistani state, others still allied to it. Then there are the other nations involved: Pakistan, and above all the Pakistani military and military intelligence service, India, Iran, China, and Russia.
Each of these distrusts all the others, including, not least, their own ostensible allies. By the same token, all fear any peace negotiations in which they are not included. Thus Karzai wishes to pursue talks with some Taliban leaders (though, as seems likely, to try to split the Taliban rather than to make a deal with the organization as a whole). But he detests talks between the US administration and the Taliban. Most of these actors are themselves internally divided. All have the capacity to damage peace negotiations, and most can destroy hopes for peace altogether if they choose.
I strongly support the argument of Thomas Ruttig that the first essential step for a US administration is to commit itself fully to a political solution, and not—as has too often been the case up to now—try to use talks to split and weaken the Taliban rather than reach agreement with the organization as a whole. Only a genuine commitment along these lines will allow Washington to play the part of an honest broker between all the forces I have outlined above. In Ruttig’s words:
Instead of the current double strategy of “shooting and talking” at the same time, it [the United States] should concentrate on “talking instead of shooting.” This means turning the tanker round, not steering it a bit more to the east or west. It would redefine the current understanding of “position of strength” away from strictly military terms to political and moral terms. In this framework, military means would be used only for self-defense (which includes defending Afghan institutions and their officials)…. Such a shift in the military approach would also significantly remove a major recruitment factor for the insurgents: civilian casualties.
The commitment then should be first and foremost to Afghan peace. This also serves the vital interests of the United States and its Western allies. For as long as the conflict continues, al-Qaeda will continue to have opportunities to make itself useful to the Taliban and the Haqqani network; and all the different armed actors involved will need to go on taxing the heroin trade in order to support their armed forces.
A peace settlement would also be a considerable boost to America’s image in the Muslim world; and perhaps most important of all, would allow for a reduction of the dangerous level of tension between the United States and Pakistan, which is a major source of radicalization in Pakistan and therefore of terrorist threat to the US and its allies—especially those like Britain that contain large Pakistani minorities.
Certain indications from the Taliban side are encouraging. In July 2012, I was part of an academic group that held conversations in the Persian Gulf with leading figures close to the Taliban.2 They told us that there is a widespread recognition within the Taliban that while they can maintain a struggle in the south and east of Afghanistan indefinitely, they will not be able to conquer the whole country in the face of the Afghan and international forces arrayed against them.
The crucial reason for this belief is that in their own estimate the Taliban have the support of only around 30 percent of the Afghan population. This is in accordance with a recent opinion survey by the Asia Foundation,3 and seems plausible, since it would represent around two thirds of the Pashtuns. We were told that the Taliban therefore recognize the need for compromise with other groups in Afghanistan (which I took to mean groups representing other nationalities such as the Tajiks).
However, they categorically ruled out any deal with the Karzai government, and insisted that there would have to be a national debate including the Taliban on a new constitution—though, interestingly enough, they also said that the constitution that emerged would probably not be very different from the existing one. They said that there can be no return to a pure “government of mullahs” as before September 11 and that any Afghan government would have to include technocrats, and allow modern education (albeit with women and men strictly separated). It is possible that this view reflects a growing awareness of Afghanistan’s mineral and energy wealth, and the need for a technocratic elite capable of exploiting it.
Finally, and most strikingly, they said that the Taliban might be prepared to agree to US bases remaining until 2024. This seems to reflect the greatest fear of the Taliban, and many other Afghans, that the country will fragment into different ethnic warlord fiefdoms backed by different regional powers like Russia and India, as occurred in the early and mid-1990s. Even a prolonged US presence, it seems, may possibly be acceptable if it helps prevent the Afghan National Army from disintegrating along these lines.
All of the figures with whom we spoke said that breaking with al-Qaeda would not be a problem for the Taliban—as long as this was part of a settlement, and not a precondition for talks. They reminded us that the Taliban leaders have repeatedly distanced themselves from international terrorism, and said that ordinary Taliban fighters also see al-Qaeda as non-Afghans who brought disaster on Afghanistan.
The people we talked to became highly evasive, however, when asked whether the Haqqani network would be willing to accept the views they had put forward. Brown and Rassler’s book also gives no definitive answer to this question. However, reading the evidence they present, and drawing upon the historical record of the tribes from whom the Haqqani forces are drawn, my own provisional conclusion would be the following: the Haqqanis will support any settlement that is acceptable to Mullah Omar and to the Pakistani military, and that leaves the Haqqanis in de facto control of their own region on the Pakistan frontier; as part of this they would be prepared to exclude any significant presence of al-Qaeda from that region. But on the other hand, nothing on earth will prevent this region from remaining a haven for smaller groups of assorted outlaws, since this has been the case for many hundreds of years.
The first thing that the Obama administration needs to decide, therefore, is whether it really wants Afghan presidential elections under the existing constitution to go ahead next year, in view of the immense twofold risk involved. First, such an election will make a peace agreement with the Taliban impossible in the short to medium term. Second, repetition of the widespread rigging of the vote of 2009 will render the result illegitimate as far as most Afghans are concerned, plunging the country into a deep political crisis just as US ground troops withdraw.
The alternative would be for the US to acknowledge the deep flaws in the existing constitution (which in truth was imposed on Afghanistan from outside), and to declare that it supports the idea of a new constitutional assembly. This would also help open the way to genuine peace talks with the Taliban. If the Obama administration cannot summon the nerve to take such a step, it will have to decide who it thinks would be the best candidate to be the next Afghan president.
The one thing the Obama administration cannot honorably and realistically do is to walk away from all this with the declaration that it is “a matter for the Afghans themselves.” This might sound modest and democratic, but it would in fact be an abdication of responsibility for an Afghan mess that is to a considerable extent of America’s own making; and responsibility to the American soldiers—the troop trainers and advisers and others—and officials who will be left in the middle of this mess after US ground troops withdraw next year.
2 The report of our group was published last year by the Royal United Services Institute ( RUSI ) in London. See Michael Semple, Theo Farrell, Anatol Lieven, and Rudra Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation,” at www.rusi.org/publications/other/ref:O504A22C99538B/. Subsequent developments suggest that the Taliban continues to hold the views we heard expressed. ↩
3 Afghanistan in 2012: A Survey of the Afghan People, published by the Asia Foundation at asiafoundation.org/publications/pdf/1163. ↩
The report of our group was published last year by the Royal United Services Institute ( RUSI ) in London. See Michael Semple, Theo Farrell, Anatol Lieven, and Rudra Chaudhuri, “Taliban Perspectives on Reconciliation,” at www.rusi.org/publications/other/ref:O504A22C99538B/. Subsequent developments suggest that the Taliban continues to hold the views we heard expressed. ↩
Afghanistan in 2012: A Survey of the Afghan People, published by the Asia Foundation at asiafoundation.org/publications/pdf/1163. ↩