Why Negotiate with the Taliban?

Do America and its allies seek enduring stability in Afghanistan or a temporary resolution of the conflict? The current pressure for an Afghan government-led "reconciliation" process with the Taliban is much more likely to lead to the latter.

While such reconciliation talks may provide a "decent interval" for the withdrawal of international forces, they are unlikely to achieve the long-term strategic objective of denying sanctuary to violent Islamist groups. At worst, this approach could result in renewed civil war. Reconciliation with the Taliban is only one part of a lasting settlement to this conflict, and it must be combined with an effort to redress the grievances of local Pashtun communities.

Yet the international community has already defined the major outlines of a reconciliation plan. It did so in the communique that came out of a major conference in London this past January. First, negotiations must be "Afghan-led." This means that the current Afghan government has the power to make all the key decisions about who to negotiate with and what deals to make. Second, the talks should focus exclusively on the Taliban, rather than on the broader Pashtun community.

Enduring stability can result only from the redress of local grievances. International forces can and must play a mediating role between local communities and the Afghan government.

The presumed need to negotiate with Taliban senior leadership requires giving Pakistan a major voice in the internal Afghan negotiations. The international community has offered a billion dollars to support this effort, creating a significant new source of patronage for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his associates.

Any reconciliation must satisfy the most important Afghan constituencies, and this certainly includes the government. But the interests of America and its allies diverge from those of the current Afghan government. President Karzai is primarily interested in consolidating his hold on power. American interests require creating conditions that will prevent the recurrence of insurgency and the consequent re-emergence of terrorist safe-havens. These goals do not necessarily align.

More specifically, the current reconciliation process empowers the Taliban while denying a voice to the much larger population of alienated Pashtuns who do not identify with the Taliban.

Who speaks for disaffected Pashtuns? Mr. Karzai does not. Many Pashtuns see the Karzai government as unjust. Grievances against the government include its corruption and the imposition of sometimes predatory government officials on communities. These grievances fuel passive support for the insurgency and sometimes direct action against the government and the foreign forces supporting it. Such complaints must be identified and redressed as part of any enduring peace process. As of now, the international community is ignoring the issue by empowering the Taliban as the only interlocutor for these Pashtuns.

Worse still, the current process encourages Pakistan to continue to see the Taliban as its principal leverage to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan. The emphasis on negotiating with senior Taliban leaders whom Pakistan funds, equips and protects means that these individuals will continue to be Islamabad's most important strategic assets in the negotiation process. The international community should instead be working to marginalize Taliban senior leaders and persuade Pakistan to abandon its support of these proxies.

Giving Mr. Karzai and his associates another billion dollars with which to control this process only increases the grievances of non-Taliban Pashtuns who resent the patronage networks that exclude them. It also encourages every aggrieved Pashtun to identify himself as a Talib in order to get a share of the loot. Finally, it undermines leverage the international community might have had to push Mr. Karzai to renegotiate the power-sharing arrangements that are now driving violence in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, another approach is starting to emerge on the ground in Afghanistan. The new strategy and the surge of forces to support it have begun to turn the tide on the battlefield by moving into enemy strongholds, partnering with Afghan Security Forces, and expanding operations across the country.

The Taliban and its allies, who seemed to have the initiative when Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command in June 2009, are now on the defensive. A few Pashtun tribes, sensing a possible change in the wind, have begun to reach out to coalition forces. In January, for example, elders of the Shinwari Tribe in Southern Nangarhar Province submitted a written declaration to U.S. forces of their determination to fight against the Taliban. Tribes in Lowgar Province and elsewhere in Eastern Afghanistan have made similar approaches.

The Afghan government has shown discomfort with these approaches. Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai has opposed what he calls "cash payments" to the tribes. Of course he does: Agreements between local tribes, coalition forces, and even Afghan National Army forces circumvent local power-brokers and undermine their ability to control.

We should not expect an "Anbar Awakening" in Afghanistan that mirrors the tribal rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. Conflict resolution in each tribal area and village will be unique. And we must resist the temptation to try to develop a national program to bypass these local initiatives in search of some elusive "grand bargain."

Enduring stability can result only from the redress of local grievances. International forces can and must play a mediating role between local communities and the Afghan government.

Military progress is steadily improving dynamics on the ground. The U.S. and its allies are well-placed to help Mr. Karzai in constructive ways, as long as we abandon the search for a magic bullet and work instead to achieve an enduring peace.

Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar and the director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War and the executive producer of the documentary "The Surge: The Whole Story."

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Michael Abney

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