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Can We Negotiate With the Taliban?

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Since July, when President Hamid Karzai first made public his desire to "talk to the Taliban" there has been hot debate about whether going to the table with glorified thugs would reap any real benefits, or only major negatives.

The US election helped scare up the idea, through GOP allegations that Obama would meet leaders of so-called rogue states without pre-conditions. The thought seemed so horrifying to so many that few were able to qualify what preconditions should be placed on international diplomacy.

As each day brings bleaker news for Afghanistan - last week's research from the International Council on Security and Development suggesting that the Taliban have a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, for example - the possibility of talking with the Taliban seems to be gaining support as an essential step out of the quagmire.

In September, a leaked memo quoted UK Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles - "The current situation is bad. The security situation is getting worse. So is corruption and the Government has lost all trust. Our public statements should not delude us over the fact that the insurrection, while incapable of winning a military victory, nevertheless has the capacity to make life increasingly difficult, including in the capital."

The American strategy "is doomed to fail" the memo quotes Cowper-Coles as saying, (The UK foreign office has questioned whether the memo correctly presents Cowper-Coles views).

Notwithstanding ethnic divisions, the popularity of the Taliban is solidifying across Afghanistan partly due to the increasing lawless, crime and corruption. In rural areas, people sometimes speak nostalgically about the 'good bits' of the Taliban days - safe streets, harsh justice for criminals, law and order. Out of desperation people are looking at them with hope, otherwise they might have none.

The United Nations have cautiously suggested that now is the time for the insurgents to meet with other political parties, foreign agencies and Afghan civil societies to explore a political solution out of the war and the grave possibility of a failed state. Further conflict must be avoided, the UN says, lives may be saved, and civil society and rule of law may be the result of successful discussion.

Who besides the Taliban and the government would be part of the discussions? NATO? The United Nations? Iran, Pakistan? Hillary Clinton? All have an interest diplomatically in peace negotiations being successful, but what are their real agendas? Are the motivations of Pakistan, itself riddled with insurgents, the same as those of NATO? Does Iran care what outcome the UN desires?

And can any of them sit with the Taliban? The new administration is a clean slate to most Americans, but can the US sit at a table with Iran, asking them to call for lessons in compromise from Islamists across the Iranian border?

Stalement may be the only outcome. Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group is doubtful about holding any discussions at all.

"The problems begin with identifying those who would be involved in a 'new dialogue process.' Afghan civil society is weak at best, and political parties, which have been completely undermined by lack of domestic and international support, are in no position to lobby or feed constructively into national policy formation," she wrote in the Financial Times on July 24. "But it is wishful thinking to assume that negotiating with insurgents from a position of weakness would stabilize Afghanistan. Obviously, the international community wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but this is no way to go about it."

This of course begs the question about whether the insurgents would even be prepared to take part in any discussion, in which - at very best - the outcome for them would be considerable concessions. Compromise is not a word that springs to mind when musing on the more pleasant character traits of the Taliban. Harder still to imagine any decision having traction within a widely scattered Talib membership whose violence and inflexible ideology hides its lack of cohesion and highly factional make up of the widely scattered group. Can anyone - even Mullah Omar - make an agreement and have any hope of it sticking?

The Taliban have in the recent past set out conditions for peace. All foreign forces out and strict Sharia law must be imposed. The modern government of Hamid Karzai could not agree to these conditions, little less anyone from civil society, NATO or the United Nations.

So if these are the Taliban's conditions for peace, will they ever come to talk with their sworn enemies? How can you trade concessions and seek compromises in two such "take it or leave it" conditions?

Can you plan for peace in Afghanistan without including the Taliban?