NATO's New Afghan Strategy Underlines the Necessity of Talking to the Taliban

We must talk to the Taliban. Unpalatable as it seems, recent developments have made it even clearer that the pros of setting up a political process in which some Taliban leaders take part outweigh the cons.

In May, the Obama administration replaced General David McKiernan with General Stanley McChrystal as NATO commander in Afghanistan. At the time, Defence Secretary Robert Gates explained the replacement as the need to get "fresh thinking, fresh eyes on the problem." That fresh thinking has begun; General McChrystal recently submitted his review to NATO leaders. The content is confidential, but we can get an impression of his new priorities from the directives he gave to troops.

At the heart of NATO's mission, General McChrystal argues, is a fight for the allegiance of the Afghan people. It is their allegiance which is key to the other priorities: protecting them from Taliban forces, building up the Afghan national forces, boosting the government's legitimacy, and improving the coordination of civilian aid.

More than the old priorities, success with these aims depends on the support, active or passive, of ordinary Afghan elders, men and women. But the same is true of the Afghan Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans who, daily, choose to get involved in the Taliban insurgency, or to involve themselves in the NATO-supported projects such as signing up to join the new local guardian force operating in Wardak province, the fledgling national army, or local or national democracy. By acknowledging this, General McChrystal has acknowledged that regarding the war in Afghanistan in simplistic Manichaean terms - save as many good guys as possible while taking out as many bad guys as possible - is a mistake. The 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' are often the same people. Rather NATO must play a game of incentives - maximising Afghans' incentive to participate and minimising their incentive to fight.

There is little NATO can do to minimise the incentive to fight, especially for those Afghans motivated by the mere presence in their country of Western, non-Muslim forces or by skewed interpretations of a rural conservative brand of Islam. But there are things they can do to maximise the incentive to participate.

Foremost amongst them is bringing the Taliban into the political process. I believe the pros of this approach outbalance the cons.

The first con is that it will mean some unpalatable results. The Taliban's often brutal form of conservative justice shocks the liberal sensibilities of the western electorates paying for the war. Bringing them into the political process will mean conceding that where, for example, young brides wed older men, NATO troops are not the right means to change those customs and attitudes.

The answer to this is that we are getting these unpalatable results already - we have the worst of both worlds. President Karzai has made these kinds of concessions to bolster his legitimacy. Witness the law passed before the election allowing Shia men to deny their wives sustenance if they do not satisfy their husbands, and which requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. These helped to shore up his power, but did not substantially neutralise the Taliban's desire to fight by bringing them into the political process.

The pro is that bringing the Taliban into the political process will mean setting up a thoroughgoing participative process. One of the problems with the elections was that traditional power brokers such as warlords had such a central role in ensuring support for the candidates. For example, the government paid insurgent leaders in exchange for their agreement not to attack voters or polling stations, according to the head of Afghanistan's Intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh.

Nobody expected an advanced democratic process. But we can reasonably expect that next time, votes are a better representation of opinion on the ground, rather than who has been bought to 'deliver' a particular province or area for a candidate. This will require that the differences over how Afghanistan is governed be expressed in debate, rather than merely fought over, and this is the real advantage of bringing ex-militants into the process as much as possible. This process will necessarily start with negotiating with some people who NATO has been fighting. That will not be easy to accept.

But participation is the first step towards a self-sustaining process. And that is essential to General McChrystal's aim of boosting the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It is also essential to get Afghanistan to the point where we can begin to bring our soldiers home.