October 1, 2011  

Negotiating with the Taliban

The U.S. has shifted from slowly winning to slowly losing

A central tenet of counterinsurgency warfare is that denying insurgents regular access to the population and a safe haven to rest and rearm will force them to reintegrate into society, reconcile with the government and henceforth pursue their aims by political means. It’s a strategy that generally requires a compelling political effort and a substantial military force. In 2009, when the Obama administration rejected a fully resourced counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan, it shrank the likelihood of a political settlement with the Taliban.

The president’s decision to set aside Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to send in 80,000 more troops hampered military commanders’ efforts to compel the insurgents to the negotiating table. In the wake of the president’s announcement of a coming drawdown, combined with an emboldened enemy and a Pakistani partner increasingly inclined to its short-term interests, the campaign against the Taliban is increasingly assuming the character of a face-saving withdrawal. It is therefore useful to evaluate the state of the military campaign, review the core U.S. interests in Afghanistan, and determine what might reasonably be accomplished in negotiations.


There has long been a central tension in the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy: The “necessary war” had an arbitrary withdrawal timeline. This tension has led to strategic ambiguity: The president rejected a troop increase of 80,000 troops, which would have been used for a strategy focused on success, and simultaneously rejected a strategy of only using targeted counterterrorism strikes, a policy of withdrawal. By attempting to politically reconcile both approaches, which are militarily complementary and not necessarily in tension, he signaled a willingness to do more but not enough to prevail. In other words, he sent more troops to war but not to victory.

This approach might have worked if it was aggressively implemented and the timeline for the war was focused on success. The increase in military and civilian resources has noticeably improved local conditions in places, but this local leverage has not become strategic leverage for the war in general. Then came the president’s December 2009 speech at West Point announcing a July 2011 withdrawal deadline. In a region of the world that remembers the lack of U.S. commitment after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the announcement was devastating. Along with his June 22 speech detailing an acceleration of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, these moves have reduced, if not eliminated, any leverage the U.S. might have had with the Taliban and Pakistan. The latter speech was taken as evidence that the president saw the killing of Osama bin Laden as a reason to leave Afghanistan more quickly, not an opportunity to double down and prevail. More evidence, in Afghan eyes, is the effort to hand over the security mission to local forces. Increasingly, the Taliban think they are winning.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is starting to extricate itself from its post-9/11 relationship with the U.S., making cooperation more difficult. Islamabad has kicked out U.S. Frontier Corps trainers, reduced the freedom of movement of U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel, and closed U.S. bases.

Recent attacks on the provincial capitals of Uruzgan and Helmand and on members of President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle in Kabul are further evidence of a concerted campaign by the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence to hurt the Afghan government’s negotiating position. They have also underscored a sense among the Afghan people that their security forces are unable to protect the population. Additionally, they are part of a strategic intimidation campaign against the Afghan population, signaling that the insurgent movement can strike anyone in the country, no matter how important, and that violence will not abate.

The narrative of U.S. withdrawal regardless of conditions on the ground and enduring U.S. economic and fiscal problems has created the perception that the U.S. is in decline and, at minimum, will be leaving Afghanistan more quickly than conditions on the ground would have suggested.

Ever since the 2001 attacks, the U.S. has sought to eliminate Afghanistan as a safe haven and operational launching pad for international jihadists such as al-Qaida. The U.S. and its Afghan and international partners have sought to eliminate al-Qaida through military operations, defeat their Taliban supporters and build an Afghan state that can resist the return of Islamic radicalism. Some of these goals may need to be revisited.

A continued, if reduced, U.S. presence is key to all of these goals. To keep al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, the U.S. will need to retain a capability to attack al-Qaida members independently. To help Afghanistan’s military develop and operate after the U.S. withdrawal, an enduring training and equipping mission will have to continue. The Afghan state will continue to need U.S. and international trainers to help its civil servants.

Several issues are intimately connected to these various objectives, such as the human rights of the Afghan population, the moderate political orientation of the Afghan government and whether the Afghan state will be fiscally independent. The Taliban, of course, have long supported the establishment of an Islamist state in Afghanistan with strict Sharia law. This would place severe prohibitions on personal behavior, limit women’s rights and apply justice based upon Koranic teachings.

The Taliban have long insisted that foreign forces, which they narrowly define as coalition forces and not Pakistani forces, must leave Afghanistan before any negotiations with the U.S. can proceed. But recent evidence indicates that this condition has been lifted, as the Taliban, the U.S. and the Afghan government are already involved in some sort of discussion. U.S. and Afghan officials have moderated their own stances as well. Karzai, for example, removed Minister of Interior Hanif Atmar and Director Amrullah Saleh of the National Directorate for Security in 2010 due to their opposition to the Taliban as members of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan or, as it is more commonly known, the Northern Alliance. The U.S. also has consciously stopped talking about defeating the Taliban and now emphasizes the reconciliation of Taliban leaders with the government of Afghanistan.

The Taliban have also downplayed those aspects of their record that alienate Western governments and the Afghan population in order to reduce any opposition to their returning to power, however modestly. Similarly, Karzai has frequently referred to the Taliban as his “brothers” and stated that he would join the Taliban if civilian casualties and other problems “committed” by Western forces continued. He has also referred to coalition forces as “occupiers” to gain favor with the Taliban.

Advantage: Taliban

The Taliban’s negotiating strategy has everything to do with how their leaders and Pakistani intelligence choose to reassert power in Afghanistan. They can do nothing and U.S. troops will eventually withdraw. Or, if the U.S. and Afghan governments offer political compromises such as power sharing, new elections or reconciliation opportunities, the Taliban will be inclined to agree, if only to accelerate their long-term return to power. Reintegration efforts that allow Taliban fighters to renounce violence in exchange for money and jobs are an excellent way for the Islamist movement to rest its military force until U.S. troop numbers shrink to the point that the Taliban can confront the Afghan government more openly.

The Taliban will likely seek to draw out any negotiation because they achieve what they want — U.S. withdrawal — without compromising their views. Additionally, due to U.S. economic and budgetary problems, the Taliban hope the U.S. will be unable to enforce any negotiating positions they may take, such as financing the Afghan army and development projects or even supporting a diminished military presence. The Taliban also have no incentive to provide the U.S. a face-saving withdrawal and every incentive to humiliate the U.S., if only to diminish the likelihood the U.S. will ever intervene in Afghan affairs again.

The Taliban will likely emphasize a softer version of their past political program and a “reformist” platform of reducing corruption, administering justice, opposing warlordism, and promoting law and order. All of these messages resonate with Afghans, especially in light of the Karzai government’s challenges with these issues, and suggest that the Taliban will wage as effective a hearts and minds campaign as they can in light of their history.

It has long been said that victory in Afghanistan will not be marked by a single event such as the Japanese signing ceremony on the battleship Missouri in 1945 — nor, for that matter, will defeat be like the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which prompted the withdrawal of French forces from Indochina in the 1950s. As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, the Taliban will reassert themselves slowly but persistently, until we wake up one morning and realize the country’s been lost.