Dancing With the Devil in the Dark: The Dilemma of Afghanistan

According to the Washington Post, Afghan and Arab sources recently reported that high-level negotiations took place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The talks were hosted by Saudi Arabia and came to an end over a year ago. The paper's sources revealed that for the first time they believed Taliban representatives were fully authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura (the Afghan Taliban organization based in Pakistan) and its leader Mohammad Omar.

There is a general consensus among experts that there is no military solution to the problems in Afghanistan. In talking to BBC's Katty Kay about a possible end to the war there, Bob Woodward, author of Obama's Wars stated, "it will not be a military victory but a sort of 'diplomatic settlement'." In view of the fact that the Afghan problem cannot have a military solution, one could argue that conducting negotiations with the every player (including Taliban) to end the war is the right thing to do. It is also normal for players in unwinnable conflicts to eventually enter a phase of negotiation with the enemy to bring about a truce or a lasting solution. But while these negotiations are legitimate, so are reflection and questions about the nature of outcome of such negotiation.

Will secret talks with the Taliban deepen the conflict or lead to a deal which ensures peace and democracy for the country? Ten years after the Bonn Conference, what has changed if the war against the Taliban is turning into a deal with the Taliban? What might be the consequences of paying Taliban commanders to lay down their arms? Lastly, why is it that on the 10th anniversary of the Afghan war the international community and democracies are forced to negotiate with the Taliban and their supporters? It is well known that the Taliban, or at least large section of them, are organically linked to al-Qaeda, and it is hardly a disputed fact that the Taliban are financially and ideologically supported by Saudi Arabia and by Pakistan's intelligence agency (ISI) for logistics.

It is also well known that the Taliban are Pakistan's geopolitical instrument, and that they have provided hospitality to bin Laden, who accepted responsibility for the 9/11 attack. The Taliban offered protection to those who accepted responsibility for the terrorist acts of 9/11. The connections are not simply a question of past responsibility, but also a current. According to the Wall Street Journal, members of Pakistan's intelligence agency have recently been pressing Taliban field commanders to fight the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan; it is well known that the ISI-Taliban alliance is behind the attacks on NATO supply trucks.

Now, it appears that the Karzai government lacks enough courage to confront the Taliban. Negotiators on behalf of the international community believe there is no solution but to escape from Afghanistan which, in effect, means to leave everything to the Taliban. In its last study on the Afghan security outlook, the authoritative International Council On Security wrote:

The clearest lesson of the 9/11 attacks was that global security cannot be disentangled from security in the world's ungoverned spaces, from Afghanistan to Somalia. The lack of international interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 allowed the Taliban to rise, and created space for Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. International actors must learn this lesson as its bottom line -- Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups cannot be allowed a safe haven in Afghanistan, regardless of its political terrain. Similarly the Taliban and its affiliates must be prevented from fomenting chaos in other neighboring states, particularly in Central Asia. If either of these scenarios comes to pass, the international community will have failed in Afghanistan -- an outcome which would raise serious questions about the very future of NATO and international order.

So if there is no military solution for Afghanistan and if negotiations with the Afghan Taliban organization based in Pakistan (Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network) will lead to the victory of the Taliban, what might be an alternative that would allow an exit from the Afghan quagmire that could also make it impossible for the Taliban to come back? The alternative would be a democratic one that implements three, as-yet untried, interconnected policies. These are: (1) to support the civilian government in Pakistan; (2) to ask democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia; and (3) to work towards a federal Afghanistan and leave the south of the country to the Taliban in case of victory in regional elections, to let the noble Pashtuns decide whether they want to live with the brutal policies of the Taliban, or to try the alternative and democratic solution.