Gauging U.S.-Taliban Talks: An Interview With Steve Coll

The United States has supported an Afghan-led negotiation process with Taliban insurgents ready to renounce violence, but a new report in the New Yorker provides details on what it says are direct U.S.-Taliban talks already underway since last year. Steve Coll, president of the Washington-based New America Foundation, and author of the article, says U.S. engagement is meant to "create conditions in which a more sustainable -- and possibly internationally endorsed -- process of negotiating led by the Afghan government, and including players such as the Pakistan government, can take place." There haven't been any official statements discussing U.S.-Taliban direct talks. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech at the Asia Society last week, emphasized the need for reconciliation with Taliban leaders who broke ties with al-Qaeda, renounced violence, and abided by the Afghan constitution. But, Coll said in an interview, these "conditions are not intended by the Obama administration to be understood as preconditions for talks. They are meant to be understood as preconditions for an acceptable settlement."

Could you give us some background on when these talks started, and which U.S. department has the lead in the negotiations?

It started last year probably before October. I would imagine from circumstantial evidence that the timing may have been related to the failure of [the Afghan] government's engagement with a man who presented himself as Mullah [Akhtar Muhammad] Mansour--and who turned out to be an imposter (NYT)--that fell apart in the summer. What I do know about the timing is that it occurred last year while Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke was still engaged in his role.

All the departments have been involved in one way or another. The State Department has been involved; intelligence channels have been involved in trying to support this dialogue and make sure that people are who they seem to be and develop an understanding of who the other side really is. The White House is certainly involved, and General [David] Petraeus's command is involved, so this is clearly an interagency initiative.

What stage are the talks at?

It was characterized to me [as indicated in his article, people briefed about the talks told him] as exploratory in the sense that it does not constitute a substantive negotiation about the issues that divide Taliban leaders from the United States. Obviously some of those issues come up and are part of the exploratory, confidence-building aspect of the discussions. But if this were to ripen in some way, it would manifest itself in a more formal process for negotiating among Taliban leaders; the Afghan government; in subordinate but important roles, the United States and Pakistan; and perhaps other elements of the Afghan body politics, such as those representative of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's peace council (Reuters).

Which Taliban leaders are the United States talking to? And who is not going to be part of these talks?

The United States [needs] to identify not only who on the Taliban side might be willing to participate, but also who besides Mullah Omar really has a record of culpability for terrorism or anti-American violence that essentially disqualifies them. That's a judgment that the United States would have to make after figuring out who, if anyone, is really willing to participate in a serious way. There would be at least some U.S. officials who would judge that there are leading Taliban personalities besides Mullah Omar who might be out of bounds to participate in such a negotiation. But of course, the Afghan government may have its own view about who it is willing to talk to, and American policy presumes that the Afghans have the leading voice in this political tract.

But do you have any names of Taliban leaders or Taliban factions that the United States is already talking to?

No, I didn't publish any names and I'm not going to provide them in an interview.

What are the basic principles on which these talks are being held? Are there any red lines that have been laid down?

One of the interesting themes that came out of the conversations that I had is the extent to which the announced American red lines--which are essentially that the Taliban would have to verifiably break with al-Qaeda, leave the battlefield if not disarm, and accept the Afghan Constitution--are not intended by the Obama administration to be understood as preconditions for talks. They are meant to be understood as preconditions for an acceptable settlement. A reasonable person listening to the statements of Obama administration officials in the past might have concluded that those were preconditions for any talks. However, I did go back and look at as many of the public remarks as I could find, when those red lines were being articulated, and I can't really find an explicit case of a cabinet member or a senior military commander saying that they were preconditions for any talk. It was implied, or at least it was received that way in some quarters.

But clearly, now the idea is that those are the conditions that the United States would require to endorse and participate in any settlement of this kind. American participation would be critical because only the United States and NATO can provide, at this stage, the security regime that would be required to guarantee the safety of participants in negotiations.

Where do these talks fit into the full gamut of talks that have been led by the Afghan government, by President Karzai, by the Saudi monarchy, and by other governments and international organizations?

The idea is to use direct American assessments and confidence building as a way to create conditions for more successful Afghan-led talks. There is a recognition that the efforts of Karzai, while they have become more systematic and inclusive over the last year, have in isolation not been able to produce the breakthroughs that Karzai hoped for, or that other supporters of negotiations had sought. The idea of the American role is primarily to create conditions in which a more sustainable and possibly internationally endorsed process of negotiating led by the Afghan government, and including players such as the Pakistan government, can take place.

Has there been any involvement of the Pakistani government or of its intelligence agency, the ISI? Are there concerns that they might act as spoilers?

There are concerns that they might act as spoilers. There's been a very careful effort to brief both the Pakistan and Afghan governments about the course of these direct talks for the purpose of assuring them that they were not going to be kept in the dark about something that they are obviously very interested in.

In the case of the Pakistanis, however, the United States is indicating that it is not going to approach negotiations with the Taliban through the ISI acting as an agent. By working directly, the United States is able to gather more reliable impressions and information about this track and its potential, but also to put itself into a position to prevent the ISI from attempting to control or manipulate any process that emerges.

Obviously, Pakistan has a legitimate interest in the outcome of these negotiations. Afghanistan is a neighbor and has been a source of instability and violence in Pakistan's national life for thirty years. No one is suggesting that the Pakistani army or the Pakistani establishment doesn't have a role here. But it's obvious that allowing the ISI to speak for the Taliban would be an unsuccessful strategy for negotiations and likely also alarm many Afghans about the legitimacy of such talks.

In your article, you allude to differences among U.S. administration officials on whether or not to talk to the Taliban. Are they significant, and what are the main points of dispute?

The differences were substantial a year or eighteen months ago, and have narrowed since then. There is the question of whether these negotiations would be effective at all. There is also a question as to whether by undertaking such talks the United States risks alienating important sections of the Afghan body politic, particularly the northern groups that fought a civil war against the Taliban in the 1990s. There are some in the administration who would like to work harder to make sure that those groups are included in the decision-making about how to approach talks with the Taliban. President Karzai's [government] has, at least until recently, not always built that kind of inclusive politics around these talks.

Finally, there are regional players, and those within the administration, who sympathize with the view that the Taliban really is best understood as culpable in international terrorism, and we don't talk to terrorists. Until they take more concrete steps to demonstrate that they are not, in fact, engaged in facilitating international terrorism, we ought not to talk with them. That has been the government of India's view, for example. It's becoming a little less inflexible now, but there are still outstanding issues, like the Indian airlines hijacking case [in 1999] and others, that would influence Indian views.

There's an argument inside both the academic and intelligence communities about the best way to understand the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, historically and currently. It's a very complicated subject, but there are those who regard the Taliban and al-Qaeda as groups without meaningful differences between them.

What potential problems do you foresee going forward in these talks?

There is a threshold question--whether there are enough serious Afghan Taliban leaders who are prepared to engage in talks of a sort that would make a difference to the course of the war over the next couple of years. That's an unanswered question.

Let's assume there are a significant number of people acting in the name of the Quetta Shura or otherwise who are prepared to engage. Then, the second most important problem is to develop negotiations that do not unbalance Afghanistan's already fragile politics by creating fears among anti-Taliban groups that they're going to be left out of some bargain. Or by proceeding in an atmosphere of such secrecy that Afghans become uncertain about who is negotiating their future and on what grounds.

Karzai is already an isolated political leader. He has built a peace council that, in its list of names, has the potential to construct the kind of inclusive negotiations I'm describing. But whether it will actually play that role is uncertain. There are lots of important factions in Afghan politics and political military equations that are not represented on the peace council.

It's going to require, in short, a much broader strategy of political engagement and diplomacy. There is no silver bullet here. These talks might have promise if they are embedded inside a much more robust political strategy that seeks Afghan national unity and looks to regional governments to reinforce that unity and to participate in these talks on those terms. If this becomes a kind of backroom deal between governments, then it is not likely to succeed.

What would be your recommendations on how the Obama administration handles these talks?

You have to solve some statecraft puzzles. How do you handle the regional diplomacy? How do you handle the talks with the Taliban simultaneously? How do you handle the intra-Afghan political challenge? But if you don't take each of those tracks equally seriously, resource them all and try to unify the strategy, it's going to be very difficult to achieve the kind of progress that would change the level of violence in Afghanistan, which is, after all, the point. There are ways, once substantial confidence has been built, to carry out talks. There are lots of models out there for building negotiations in a secure way. Even in the best case, it's going to require time. There are lots of reasons to get started, because it may take several years to discover whether this track can produce results.

This interview originally appeared on