Last week I attended an event at the New America Foundation where Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann and Ambassador Omar Samad presented the new ICSR report, Talking to the Taliban: Hope over History?. The presentations were short, incisive and clear, and the question and answer session a constructive addendum to the event. I would strongly recommend anyone who is interested in this topic to read the report and watch the video.
The report is sceptical about the value of talking with the Taliban, at least in the manner in which negotiations have been approached to date. There are many reasons for the pessimism: the Taliban is not hierarchical, so there are few leaders who can ‘deliver the movement’; the talks critically do not include the Afghan government; too many actors are involved in the process, producing distortion and ambiguity; and whereas negotiations require lengthy commitments, NATO is rapidly running out of time. Most fundamentally, whereas talks require a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, NATO does not have a strong enough hand militarily to achieve what they want at the negotiating table.
This leads to the obvious question: should we nonetheless try? It could be said that talks is a luxury of the strong – you achieve agreements based on the military balance and on that basis NATO is at a disadvantage. Yet fighting on in the hope of a better deal is also a luxury of the strong – at this point it, too, is highly undesirable. So if not talks, then what?
The panelists were unsure. Peter Neumann made the important point that the efforts at negotiation do not occur in a vacuum but are themselves destabilizing: ‘there’s all kind of talk about a secret deal and people are arming in anticipation of some secret deal coming out’. This is an interesting point and worthy of further examination. Neumann also noted that that while he had ‘no doubt that those talks taking place are well intended, at least from the American side…, good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes’.
Still, it may be possible to see some value in the talks, even if they do not result in political progress. Perhaps these talks should be viewed in far more modest terms, not as a process of codifying political outcomes, but as an exercise of familiarization, where we learn more about the enemy, and determine whether there is any scope for future talks, or particular personalities that could prove useful at a later date. As Neumann emphasized in the presentation, talks generally take a good decade to reach an agreement so perhaps this should be seen as the first salvo rather than final settlement? This might be the 1984 first round of negotiations between San Salvador and FMLN, which went nowhere yet opened the door for future talks, which when held some eight years later, under wholly different conditions, helped end the war.
This leads to a second fundamental point: the Taliban is often seen as lacking unity, which complicates diplomatic engagement. As Ryan Evans put it, reflecting upon his own experience in Afghanistan, there is great ‘localism’ to the conflict: many people are ‘fighting for local reasons and are often only casually connected to the leadership of the Taliban’. Thus even a deal with the Taliban leadership might unravel as weakly connected clusters of fighters decide to go in a different direction, for a variety of local reasons.
The lack of hierarchy within the organization presents a challenge, but is not historically anomalous. As the moderator of the event, Ben Connable, noted, in Iraq, too, every village had its own concerns and preoccupations and would rise up as a new front of coalition. He suggested, and I agree, that there may be some interesting research insights to be gained from studying negotiations or engagement with dispersed insurgencies such as these. Counterinsurgency is armed politics, but how do you engage politically with a dispersed mass of concerns?
My initial take on this question relates to recent research of mine on clear-hold-build. First, it should be noted that, as Amb. Omar Samad reminds us during the QnA, the Taliban is more unified at the top – it shares one worldview and pushes toward conformity, so much so that attempts at dissent are quashed. Second, the localism that Evans speaks of strikes me as an inevitable byproduct of insecurity, which forces small groups to cope and use violence to protect themselves and their interest. Such localism is probably more typical of conflict zones than commonly realised and does not necessarily preclude the possibility of talks. The point would be to separate the wheat from the chaff – the bone fide insurgents, with their grand and ideologically driven ideas, from the population, typically at the village level, who in the midst of protracted conflict do what they can or must to meet their needs.
Such an approach would be based on a distinction between insurgency movements, with a more stable agenda and set leadership, and the endlessly variegated needs of the local population. The former are more accessible through high-level negotiations, the latter must be co-opted and pacified through effective clear-hold-build (for some example of how not to do it, see my latest article). The two processes are the not same but proceed in parallel: to co-opt the village-level militias and reduce overall insecurity, but also to isolate and help identify those ideologically-driven movements with whom negotiations or some form of engagement may one day be possible.
I am not confident that we have the time, wherewithal and partners to implement such an approach in Afghanistan, but it speaks to an important if more general distinction between insurgency at the high level and instability at the village level. So long as these are confounded or confused, the notion of talks will always be a non-starter.