Negotiating with the Taliban: Lessons from history


Muhammad Naeem (L), a spokesman for the Office of the Taliban of Afghanistan speaks during the opening of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha June 18, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Pursuing negotiation with the Taliban as an exit strategy is both unrealistic and dangerous.

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  • 36 years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about negotiating with insurgents.

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  • Taliban has used negotiation more as a ploy to gain political and military advantages than as a way to settle conflicts.

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Key Points:

  • The past 36 years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about the advantages and the perils of negotiating with insurgents.
  • The Taliban’s track record of negotiation is replete with deception. In the past two decades, the Taliban has used negotiation more as a ploy to gain political and military advantages than as a way to settle conflicts. 
  • Pursuing negotiation with the Taliban as an exit strategy, as the Soviet experience in the 1980s shows, is both unrealistic and dangerous. Instead, the United States and the next Afghan government should take practical measures to ensure stability in postwithdrawal Afghanistan.


On April 5, seven million Afghans defied Taliban threats and went to the polls to choose President Hamid Karzai's successor, and with no clear winner in the first round, the top two vote getters-former cabinet ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai-are readying for a runoff vote tentatively slated for June 7. Once the election is over, the next government will have to deal with a myriad of security and governance challenges as the international community's involvement in the country is shrinking.

Although the Taliban failed to disrupt the election process, the terrorist group remains a potent force that threatens Afghanistan's future stability. During the campaign season, both Abdullah and Ahmadzai stated that security would top their government agenda and that they would try to negotiate with the Taliban for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. While Abdullah cautioned that "there is no alternative but to confront" the radical Taliban groups militarily, Ahmadzai echoed a more conciliatory tone and pledged one-sided concessions to the militants, including freeing more Taliban prisoners and declaring a ceasefire.[1]

Nevertheless, if history is any guide, efforts to negotiate with the Taliban will not just fail; they will also strengthen the terrorist group and further destabilize Afghanistan. To bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has unilaterally offered the group significant concessions over the past decade, including freeing thousands of its prisoners, promising its leaders a share in the government, providing monetary and political incentives to reconciled ex-combatants, and purging anti-Taliban and pro-West figures from the government. Far from accepting peace, however, the Taliban has reciprocated by stepping up violence, refusing to talk to Kabul, and maintaining ties with al Qaeda. Attempts by the United States and its NATO allies to negotiate with the Taliban have been equally counterproductive. As the United States and its allies wind down their mission and a new Afghan leadership replaces Karzai this summer, there is an urgent need to reassess the policy of negotiating with the Taliban and to take practical measures to ensure stability in postwithdrawal Afghanistan.

In fact, it is not the first time that a foreign power or the government in Kabul is unsuccessfully seeking a negotiated end to the war in the country. The past thirty-six years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about the advantages and the perils of negotiating with insurgents. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union tried to negotiate with the mujahideen to facilitate an orderly withdrawal of its troops and ensure the survival of its satellite regime in Afghanistan; between 1994 and 2001, the Taliban disingenuously used diplomacy as an instrument to further its military agenda and enhance its international legitimacy. Most important, Washington and Kabul must learn from their mistakes of engaging with the Taliban in the past decade, which have only exacerbated the political and security situations in the country. A political solution to end America's longest war is desirable, but a shortsighted deal with the terrorists could complicate the exit strategy of the United States and its allies, jeopardize the hard-won gains of the last decade, and inflame ethnic tension in the country.

Soviet Negotiation with Mujahideen (1985-1990)

The Soviet Union's decision to militarily disengage from and seek a negotiated end to the Afghan war was a reflection of both political changes in Moscow and security realities on the battlefield. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, the conflict in Afghanistan had become a stalemate, and officials in Moscow had begun questioning the feasibility of defeating the insurgency through a conventional war. Consistent with his "new thinking" foreign policy, Gorbachev decided to end the occupation of Afghanistan-which he called "the bleeding wound"-and urged his Afghan counterpart to reconcile with the opposition in a power-sharing government.[2] Although troop drawdown did not begin until February 1988, Kremlin's ultimatum sent shockwaves across the Afghan government, whose survival depended on the Soviet military and financial assistance. On December 30, 1986, as a result, Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah announced a national reconciliation plan to rally public support for the state and negotiate a peaceful settlement with mujahideen.[3]

To prove that his peace proposal was genuine and not an "empty, deceptive slogan," Najibullah unilaterally offered the insurgents major concessions, including declaring a six-month unilateral ceasefire, approving a new constitution that recognized Islam as the state religion, introducing an electoral and multiparty system, implementing economic reforms to respect private property, granting amnesty to opposition leaders, releasing more than 16,000 political prisoners, and offering the opposition half of the posts in a government of national reconciliation.[4] The government also toned down its propaganda against the mujahideen, and state-run Radio Kabul began to call the mujahideen beradaran narazi (disgruntled brothers) instead of ashraar (terrorists).[5]

To put the plan into action, the government set up the Extraordinary Supreme Commission for National Reconciliation, which oversaw the work of more than 10,000 reconciliation commissions at the district and subdistrict levels. Each local commission comprised representatives of the government, former insurgents, and influential local leaders, and it was assigned to create "peace jirgas [councils]" to employ traditional conflict resolution methods to integrate local armed groups.[6]

The government initially pursued a two-pronged strategy: it reached out to "moderates" and the "middle echelon" within the insurgency to split the opposition, and, simultaneously, it continued to strengthen its armed forces to confront the "irreconcilables."[7] With no breakthrough in sight, Najibullah later reached out to top mujahideen field commanders-including Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Jamiat-e Islami party, Jalaluddin Haqqani of Hizb-e Islami Khalis, and Ismail Khan, the most prominent commander in the west-and offered to make them autonomous rulers and remove Soviet troops from their territories if they made peace. Emboldened by the Soviet's pullout plan, the opposition leaders rejected the government's proposal and vowed to continue "armed jihad until the unconditional withdrawal of Soviet troops, the overthrow of the atheistic regime, and the establishment of an independent, free and Islamic Afghanistan."[8]

At first, the government's peace plan had some success. In the first seven months, according to declassified Soviet records, a total of 164,000 opposition members, including 15,000 armed rebels, accepted the offer. In addition, more than 600 groups with a total strength of 53,000 men were said to be holding talks with Kabul. It is difficult to verify these figures independently, but even if they are accurate, the reconcilers did not include prominent mujahideen leaders. "Until the end of my office," noted Mohammad Hassan Sharq, who served as prime minister in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1989 and was heading the reconciliation program, "no known commander submitted, nor any known refugee was willing to negotiate."[9] Moreover, Najibullah admitted to Gorbachev that the "active nucleus of the irreconcilable opposition numbering 46,000 men" rejected the offer and continued "resistance."[10]

Why did the reconciliation plan fail? One key reason for failure was that the Soviet withdrawal announcement bolstered the mujahideen's confidence about a military victory and gave them little reason to make peace. "The counter-revolution is aware of the strategic decision of the Soviet leadership to withdraw the Soviet troops from the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan]," a Soviet official noted. "The counter-revolution will not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all."[11] The rebels believed that the Kabul government would collapse immediately after foreign troops left-an assessment shared by the US intelligence community.[12] The opposition also distrusted Kabul and Moscow. "Mujahideen could not accept reconciliation," argued Qazi Amin Waqad, former deputy head of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami, "because if they agreed with the peace process, all power would still remain in the hands of those generals who were trained and supported by the Russians, and the mujahideen would have been marginalized."[13] An extensive support network in Pakistan and enormous foreign funding also dissuaded the insurgents from a compromise.[14]

Another obstacle was a lack of consensus on reconciliation within each of the warring sides. The ideological factions in the government believed that power-sharing with the opposition contradicted the party's principles and goals.[15] Although Najibullah dismissed or exiled many hard-liners, interparty disputes continued to weaken the government, resulting in large-scale defections.[16] There was also a rift within the Soviet camp.[17] For example, when Soviet military leaders tried to broker a deal with Massoud in the north, the Soviet spy agency (KGB) sided with Najibullah to sabotage the effort.[18]

The mujahideen, too, were not a monolithic entity. The traditionalists and royalists, such as the Afghanistan National Liberation Front, led by Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, and the National Islamic Front for Afghanistan, headed by Sayed Ahmad Gilani, expressed a willingness to have dialogue; the hard-liners, however, which made the bulk of the insurgency, such as Hizb-e Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Jamiat-e Islami, headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, opposed reconciliation. As the Soviets began exiting, internal disputes between the seven mujahideen factions only intensified.[19]

In addition, a lack of interest and political will by the international community to bring peace to Afghanistan also contributed to the failure. Nor were all external parties to the conflict sincere about a negotiated settlement. On April 14, 1988, for example, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and the Soviet Union signed the Geneva Accords, which required that Moscow withdraw troops within nine months and that Islamabad stop interference in Afghan affairs. Although Moscow abided by the accord, Pakistan violated the agreement by increasing support for the rebels to depose the Kabul government.[20]

Ultimately, the reconciliation plan not only failed to establish peace but also weakened the government and paved the way for its downfall. For a smooth withdrawal, the Red Army forged local deals with opposition commanders who gave the exiting troops a safe passage but continued to fight the government.[21] Kabul and Moscow hoped that the insurgents would become more interested in reconciliation after the foreign troops' departure; quite the opposite happened, however, as an emboldened insurgency and its supporters in Pakistan intensified violence to capture Kabul. Furthermore, the government's patronage system created incentives for local militias to keep shifting allegiances because they were motivated by financial gains rather than an honest desire to work with the government. In the spring of 1992, General Abdorrashid Dostum, the most prominent militia leader allied with Kabul, joined the rebels and overthrew the government.[22]

Taliban Diplomacy (1994-2001)

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West lost interest in Afghanistan and the country became a proxy battlefield for subversive regional power plays. The Kabul government collapsed a year later, and infighting among competing mujahideen factions paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban. Between 1994 and 1998, the Taliban, with assistance from al Qaeda and the Pakistani military establishment, toppled the mujahideen government and captured more than 90 percent of Afghanistan.[23] Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Taliban's early expansion from the south to the rest of the country was made possible more through co-opting or brokering deals with local warlords than through military operations. Indeed, deal making and diplomacy were an integral part of the Taliban's military doctrine. The group did not negotiate in good faith, however, and once it achieved its objectives, it violated the deals and turned on its partners.[24]

When the Taliban first appeared in Kandahar, it was unable to confront powerful commanders in the province who belonged to rival mujahideen factions; as a result, it adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy. As a first step, the Taliban sent a delegation to Kabul to seek the government's support to disarm local commanders belonging to Hizb-e Islami. The government of Borhanuddin Rabbani, which saw Hizb-e Islami as its chief enemy, obliged and asked its top military ally in Kandahar, Mullah Naqibullah, to cooperate with the Taliban. The Taliban clearly had broader ambitions, however. Once it disarmed Hizb-e Islami commanders, it removed Naqibullah from power too.[25]

The Taliban also brokered temporary partnerships with regional warlords from all ethnicities to further its agenda. A deal with Dostum, who launched air strikes against Ismail Khan, the ruler of Herat Province, helped the Taliban's expansion to the west. In another episode of turning on its partner, the Taliban separated from Dostum and joined hands with his rival, General Abdul Malek, another Uzbek commander in the north, forcing Dostum to flee the country. Nor did the deal with Malek last long, as the Taliban imprisoned him shortly after defeating Dostum.[26]

Not all commanders took the bait, however. In central Ghor Province, for example, Ibrahim Malekzada, the most prominent commander in the province and a Kabul ally, rejected the Taliban's plea, including a personal phone call from Mullah Omar, to shift sides.[27] The most treacherous negotiation by the Taliban occurred in 1995, when the group marched toward Kabul and made a deal with Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of the Shi'ite Hizb-e Wahdat, to capture Kabul. Remarkably, the meeting between the two sides occurred in the Iranian consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the Iranian diplomats advised Mazari to accept the Taliban's deal in return for safety. The advice was a fatal mistake as the Taliban reneged on the deal, seized Hazara positions in Kabul, and killed Mazari.[28]

Equally tragic was the US experience engaging the Taliban diplomatically. Between 1995 and 2000, declassified records show, American diplomats held more than 30 meetings with the Taliban to persuade the group to close down terrorist training camps in territories under its control, securing nothing but empty promises from the Taliban. In 1998, for example, the Clinton administration held direct talks with the Taliban and obtained a pledge that the Taliban would "not allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base for terrorism." A few months later, however, al Qaeda carried out the deadly bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Rather than learning from this experience, the Department of State stepped up talks with the Taliban, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later agreed to "engaged in a serious and confidential dialogue with the Taliban" on the issue of al Qaeda and the extradition of its leader, Osama bin Laden. While the United States and the Taliban were negotiating, bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed were in eastern Afghanistan planning for the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.[29]

Post-2001 Negotiation with the Taliban

The concept of negotiating with the Taliban evolved at the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. As Operation Enduring Freedom started on October 7, 2001, then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf began lobbying Washington to include "moderate Taliban leaders" into Afghanistan's political future-a request Secretary of State Colin Powell accepted.[30] Although the Taliban was not included in the December 2001 Bonn Conference that laid the foundation for a democratic Afghan government, the Bush administration's green light for a future Taliban role allowed Pakistani military leaders to maintain ties with the group, shelter its leadership on its soil, and help its resurgence a year later.[31]

In May 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, preoccupied with the Iraq war, announced an end to "major combat activity" and set a timeline for troop withdrawal within the next twelve months. The announcement, amid clear signs of a Taliban comeback, alarmed the Afghan president. Given the Afghan security forces' shortcomings in size and capabilities, Karzai, with the approval of then-US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmai Khalilzad, tried but failed to co-opt former Taliban officials to pacify the volatile regions in the south and east.[32] As the Taliban was gaining momentum in 2005, Karzai set up the Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by former president Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, to speed up and institutionalize the peace process. By 2009, the commission claimed to have reintegrated 7,106 former combatants and assisted in the release of 763 Taliban members who accepted the government's peace offer.[33] Nevertheless, the deteriorating security situation indicated that the government's peace efforts were failing.

By 2006, the Taliban's strength-particularly in the four southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan-had grown significantly. NATO forces, deployed to the region for the first time that summer, encountered a deadly Taliban resurgence. In Helmand, the 3,300-strong British troops, incapable of tackling the violence, entered into local deals, the most notorious of which occurred in the Musa Qala district. Both sides agreed to withdraw forces from the district and allow local elders to be in charge of security. The Taliban's duplicity yet again came to the fore as it broke the accord once the British left the area-overrunning locals and taking control of the district in February 2007.[34] The failed diplomatic engagement not just called into question the viability of similar future deals but also created a rift between NATO and the Afghan government. An infuriated Karzai expelled two foreigners who led the Musa Qala talks: Michael Semple, an Irishman and acting head of the European Union mission, and Mervyn Patterson, a British UN political officer.[35]

After taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama argued that "there will also be no peace without reconciliation," and negotiation with the Taliban became the main political pillar of Washington's strategy in Afghanistan.[36] In December 2009, Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 additional troops to weaken the Taliban and force the group to accept a peaceful settlement.[37] Although the surge helped arrest the Taliban momentum in the south and strengthened the Afghan government, especially its security forces, the 18-month withdrawal timeline attached to the surge undercut the effectiveness of the military mission, encouraged the Taliban to adopt a wait-and-see strategy, and convinced Pakistan that continued support for the Taliban would be the right strategy to wield influence in postwithdrawal Afghanistan.

The year 2009 also saw a dramatic deterioration of relations between Kabul and Washington, as Karzai accused the Obama administration of interfering in the elections in an attempt to unseat him. By then, the Afghan president had also lost confidence in the coalition's commitment and ability to defeat the Taliban and dismantle terror sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. After winning reelection, Karzai instead placed reconciliation at the top of his agenda. At the January 2010 London Conference, he asked the international community to support his government's peace plan, and four months later, he convened the Consultative Peace Jirga, bringing together sixteen hundred largely handpicked delegates, who gave him a strong mandate for talks with the Taliban.[38] On July 20, the government introduced the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) at the International Kabul Conference, where it received overwhelming support from the representatives of seventy countries and international organizations. Later that year, the government established the High Peace Council (HPC) to open a dialogue with the Taliban and guide and oversee the APRP's implementation.[39]

From the beginning, however, the HPC's success was in doubt. Karzai did not select the council's 68 members on the basis of their influence with Afghan tribes or mediation and peace-building skills; rather, he strategically choreographed the appointments to divide its non-Pashtun political opposition and broaden his own political base among his Pashtun constituents. Most prominent members of the council, including its first chairman, Burhanuddin Rabbani (killed by the Taliban in 2011), were not seen as neutral negotiators because they were former Northern Alliance leaders who had fought against the Taliban in the 1990s and later sided with the US-led coalition to topple the Taliban regime. Moreover, some other HPC members are Taliban sympathizers and have so far served more the Taliban agenda than the government's interests. In February 2014, the council's spokesman came under a firestorm after he criticized the US military presence in Afghanistan and praised bin Laden as a "martyr."[40]

Although the US and Afghan governments at times boast about reintegrating thousands of ex-combatants, no prominent Taliban commanders involved in the past decade's war or members of the group's Rahbari Shura (leadership council) have joined the APRP so far. Most of the reconcilers have been either low-key foot soldiers or local armed groups whose links with the Taliban cannot be substantiated. It is therefore no surprise that their reintegration has had no positive impact on the security situation at the local or national level. Conversely, many villagers complain that the reintegration program, particularly recruiting members of the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami into the Afghan Local Police Program, has legitimized existing criminals and warlords, who rob and harass people, impose arbitrary taxes, and murder opposing voices.[41]

In addition, some of the ex-combatants may have joined the government, but their loyalty remains with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In April 2011, for example, former Taliban militants who received a monthly stipend from the government plotted an attack on a United Nations office in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.[42] Last November, Wahid Muzhda, a former Taliban foreign ministry official who had ostensibly left the group and lived in Kabul, was caught spying for the Haqqani network. Muzhda, who was frequently quoted in the Western media as a political analyst, fled the country after the Afghan spy agency leaked his phone conversation in which he briefed Sayed Ahmad Haqqani, a member of the Taliban's leadership council, on a gathering he had organized in opposition to the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement between Kabul and Washington.[43] The Afghan government did not explain why Muzhda was not arrested. The list of reconcilers does include a few individuals who held senior positions in the Taliban government, but they all joined the government before the Taliban resurgence in 2005. Despite being on the government's payroll, these ex-officials have not played a visibly positive role in the peace process; instead, they have remained advocates for the Taliban cause and have used government and international resources to benefit the group.

Most important, Pakistan has been the biggest external hindrance to the peace process. Its military establishment not just supports the Afghan Taliban but also assassinates and arrests Taliban leaders who hold back-channel talks with the government.[44] At present, Taliban leaders also have no incentives to cut ties with the Pakistani military and risk death or marginalization. On the contrary, the Pakistani military and the Taliban, especially the Haqqani network, see their relationship as a strategic necessity. Unless the Pakistani military believes that the costs of supporting the Taliban are greater than the benefits, it is unlikely to take any significant action to dismantle terrorist sanctuaries on its soil or force the group to make peace with Kabul.

So far, talks with the Taliban have done more harm than good, as the government's peace overtures have strengthened the Taliban both politically and militarily. Indeed, defeating the Taliban has not been on Karzai's agenda in the past decade. In 2010, for example, Karzai did not cooperate in a sincere way with the top US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, to prepare the political ground for the surge of American troops, and he refused to mobilize the public against the Taliban. In addition, Karzai's release of Taliban prisoners en masse has energized the enemy's rank and file, promoted a culture of impunity, and undermined the morale of the Afghan forces. Following the controversial release of hundreds of suspected Taliban fighters from the Bagram prison earlier this year, Afghan defense minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi lamented that scores of his soldiers had sacrificed their lives to detain Taliban fighters, but the government had set them free. He also warned that many prisoners rejoined the terrorist group after release and continued to fight the Afghan forces.[45]

Politically, the Taliban has exploited the talks to alter its image from a terrorist organization to a legitimate opposition movement and gain more freedom of action. Once confined to their hideouts in Pakistan and blacklisted by the United Nations, Taliban leaders now freely travel from the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Karachi to the Middle East to fundraise and build new alliances.

When the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar last June, Kabul and Washington hoped that the new office paved the way for a negotiated end to the conflict. The Taliban, however, obviously had a different agenda, using the occasion as a publicity stunt to gain international credibility. At the opening ceremony in Doha, Taliban envoys played their official anthem, raised their white flag, and placed an "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" sign outside their embassy-like building.[46] The Taliban also used its presence in Qatar to broaden its diplomatic outreach in the broader Middle East region. Last June, a senior Taliban delegation flew from Qatar to Iran on an official visit, which the terrorist group touted as a diplomatic achievement. "Iran, which is considered an important power among Afghanistan's neighbors and in the region, has some common interests with the Taliban in opposition to America," read a statement on the Taliban website. "With this in mind, the Taliban tries to cultivate closer ties with Iran than with others."[47] Feeling betrayed by the US and Qatari governments, Karzai boycotted the Qatar talks and suspended negotiations with Washington over the Bilateral Security Agreement.[48]

Instead of mobilizing the masses against the Taliban, Karzai and some of his cabinet officials have over the past years tried to rebrand the Taliban and absolve the group from crimes and terrorism-generating conspiracy theories and, at times, anti-American sentiments in Afghanistan. This year, the Taliban has publicly claimed credit for a series of terrorist attacks in Kabul, but presidential statements blamed the attacks on "foreign intelligence agencies" and "enemies of Afghanistan" without a reference to the Taliban.[49] In the case of the January 17 attack that killed several foreigners in the Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, Karzai reportedly suspected the US government might have been involved to undermine his government.[50] Farooq Wardak, the minister of education and an influential HPC member, constantly argues that the Taliban has changed and that the group is not responsible for daily attacks-prompting many Afghans to sarcastically call him "a Taliban spokesman."[51]

In his second term, Karzai has also purged his government of anti-Taliban voices. "Political forces with anti-Taliban thinking are sidelined from national and international calculations," says Amrullah Saleh, a former head of intelligence who was fired in 2010 because of his strong anti-Taliban stance. "If the massive military forces of the government enjoyed the support of political circles at the local level," argues Saleh, "we would be able to avoid the stalemate and drive the Taliban out back to their havens in Pakistan."[52] The reconciliation plan has also sparked ethnic tension and human rights concerns. Fearing a backstage deal between Karzai and the Taliban, ethnic minority leaders over the past years have been rearming their militias in fear of a Taliban comeback-a development that does not bode well for Afghanistan's long-term stability.[53]

What Should Be Done?

The Taliban's track record of negotiation is replete with trickery and deception. Over the past two decades, the Taliban has used negotiation as a tactic to gain political and military advantages rather than to settle conflicts. With the looming exit of foreign troops, the terrorist group appears more confident about a military victory and has even less incentive to negotiate in good faith.[54] At present, the Taliban's strategy appears to be to wait until the coalition forces leave by year's end and then try to overthrow the Kabul government. Until then, it will continue suicide attacks in populated areas to project power and undermine the government. By simply making vague promises, however, the Taliban is clearly trying to encourage Washington to accelerate troop withdrawal and decide against keeping any residual forces in the country. The United States, NATO, the United Nations, and the Afghan government should be extremely cautious about peace talks and wary of the Taliban's motives.

Once the next Afghan leader takes office, he should disband the HPC, stop the arbitrary release of Taliban prisoners, and cleanse the government machinery of Taliban sympathizers. Rather than fruitlessly pursuing peace with the Taliban, the new administration should concentrate on improving security, governance, the economy, and the rule of law in an effort to prevent the Taliban from exploiting local grievances for recruitment and other antigovernment activities. The Taliban's ideological core leadership is unlikely to cut ties with al Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution, and renounce violence. Many nonideological members, however, may shift sides if they believe the government will be the ultimate winner. In addition, the fact that a vast number of people turned out for the election was a strong repudiation of the Taliban and a demonstration of the Afghans' commitment to their existing democratic and constitutional order. The next government must capitalize on the growing public antipathy toward the Taliban to marginalize and weaken the group.

The United States, too, must give up on the illusion of negotiating its way out of Afghanistan. Instead, it needs to step up efforts to further weaken and isolate the Taliban before pulling out its troops. As a first step, the Obama administration must designate the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), a move long overdue, given two decades of Taliban terror and violence. Blacklisting, however, will not be sufficient by itself. The Obama administration designated the Haqqani Network as an FTO in 2012, but it has reportedly taken no actions against the group's finances so as not to scuttle the peace talks.[55]

With the Taliban clearly not seeking peace, relevant US government agencies-primarily the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Treasury-must combine efforts and devise a comprehensive strategy to target the Taliban's financial assets and its support network in Pakistan and the Middle East. Most important, the White House must tell Pakistan to take action against terrorist sanctuaries on its soil or face serious consequences. Sanctioning Pakistani military and civilian leaders associated with terrorist groups has to be on the agenda.

Above all, the Obama administration must realize that there is no quick fix to the threat of international terrorism emanating from South Asia and that combating and defeating terrorism in the region require a long-term civilian and military commitment by the United States and its allies. Pursuing negotiations with the Taliban as an exit strategy, as the Soviet experience shows, is both unrealistic and dangerous.


1. See the first Afghan presidential debate on security and politics, aired on Tolo TV, February 4, 2014,; and Samim Sadat, "Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai: Taliban Zindani dar Bagram ra Man Azad Kardam" [Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai: I Released Taliban Prisoners from Bagram], Bokhdi News, March 29, 2014,

2. Declassified transcript (excerpt) of the Soviet Politburo meeting chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev on November 13, 1986, available at the National Security Archives, George Washington University,

3. Faqir Wadan, "Mosaleha Melli: Andesha Siyasi Gozar az Farhang Jang ba Farhang Solh" [National Reconciliation: Political Concept of Transition from the Culture of War to the Culture of Peace], Payam-e Watan, November 12, 2012,

4. Mohammad Najibullah, speech at the joint session of lower and upper houses of Afghanistan's parliament, October 29, 1988, See also Gorez Khan Attakhel, "Uruj wa Soqot Doctor Najibullah" [Rise and Fall of Dr. Najibullah], March 6, 2009,

5. Hassan Kakar, "Epilogue, 1982-1994," in Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 257-301.

6. "Record of a Conversation of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev with Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah," July 20, 1987, in Cold War International History Project Bulletin, no. 14/15,

7. Ibid. See also Wadan, "Mosaleha Melli."

8. Adam Robinson, Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of the Terrorist (New York: Arcade, 2011). See also Rone Tempest, "Regime and Violent Bandit Are Allies in Kabul," Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1987.

9. Kakar, Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion, 261.

10. "Record of a Conversation of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev."

11. Colonel Tsagolov's letter to USSR minister of defense Dmitry Yazov on the situation in Afghanistan, August 13, 1987, National Security Archives, George Washington University,

12. Defense Intelligence Agency, "Afghanistan: Soviet Withdrawal Scenario," May 9, 1988 (DIA Declassification Release), National Security Archives, George Washington University,

13. Ismail Shahamat, "Afghanistan; Du Rais Jamhor, Du Tarh-e Mosaleha" [Afghanistan; Two Presidents, Two Reconciliation Plans], September 28, 2012,

14. Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 205.

15. Attakhel, "Uruj wa Soqot Doctor Najibullah."

16. "Record of a Conversation of Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev." Also see Defense Intelligence Agency, "Afghanistan: Soviet Withdrawal Scenario."

17. Wadan, "Mosaleha Melli."

18. Kakar, Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion, 257-301.

19. Ibid.

20. Elaine Sciolino, "Kabul Campaigns in World Capitals," New York Times, September 13, 1987,

21. Mohammad Najibullah, speech.

22. "Zindaginama Najibullah" [Najibullah's Biography], BBC Persian, December 21, 2009,

23. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000).

24. Michael Semple, Reconciliation in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2009) 22-24.

25. Abdul Qadir Alam, "Zohor Taliban wa Tactic Hai Nezami Shaan" [Rise of Taliban and Their Military Tactics], Arman-e Melli, January 24, 2014,

26. "Dostum wa Mokhalefan Daron Hezbi" [Dostum and Opposition within Party], Hasht-e Sobh, March 19, 2012, See also "Rawabet Pakistan ba Dawlat Mujahedeen wa Taliban" [Pakistan's Relations with Mujahedeen Government and Taliban], Note Online, June 4, 2012.

27. Saleh Amrullah, "Pas az Massoud: Az Sog Farmandah ta Arman Shahr Qudrat" [After Massoud: From Mourning Commander to Aspiring for City of Power], Hasht-e Sobh, August 5, 2012,; and Javid Kohestani, former security official in the mujahideen government (1992-96), Tolo TV, September 26, 2012,

28. Michael Semple, "Talking to the Taliban," Foreign Policy, January 10, 2013,

29. Michael Rubin, "Taking Tea with the Taliban," Commentary, February 1, 2010,

30. "Powell, Musharraf Discuss Future of Afghanistan," USA Today, October 16, 2001,

31. Tomsen, Wars of Afghanistan, 587-653.

32. Tony Karon, "The U.S. Says the Afghanistan War Is Over; The Taliban Aren't So Sure," Time, May 6, 2003,,8599,449942,00.html; Victoria Burnett, "You Don't Have to Die, Taliban Told," Financial Times, December 17, 2004,

33. Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission,

34. Matt Dupee, "A Chronology of the Musa Qala Dilemma," Long War Journal, December 3, 2007,

35. Alastair Leithead, "‘Great Game' or Just Misunderstanding?" BBC News, January 5, 2008,

36. White House, "Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," press release, March 27, 2009,

37. Peter Spiegel, Jonathan Weisman, and Yochi J. Dreazen, "Obama Bets Big on Troop Surge," Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2009,

38. "Afghan Peace Jirga Backs Karzai Taliban Talks Proposal," BBC News, June 4, 2010,

39. United Nations Development Programme, "2011 First Quarter Progress Report,"

40. Tariq Majidi, "Enteqad Shura Aali Solh az Edama Hozor Nerohai Amrikayi dar Keshwar Bad az Marg Rahbar al Qaeda" [Objection by Peace Council to American Forces' Continued Presence in Afghanistan after Death of al Qaeda Leader], Tolo News, February 13, 2014,

41. Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, "Az Arbaki ta Police Mahali: Chalesh Hai Imroz wa Nagarani Hai Farda" [From Arbaki to Local Police: Today's Challenges and Tomorrow's Concerns], Spring 2012, Also see Ahmad Majidyar, "The Afghan Local Police Can't Be Trusted to Secure Afghanistan," AEIdeas, August 20, 2012,

42. "Taliban Sabeq dar Mian Amelan Khoshonat hai Khoneen Mazar-e Sharif" [Former Taliban among Perpetrators of Deadly Violence in Mazar-e Sharif], April 7, 2011, BBC News,

43. "Ifsha-yi Mokalema Wahid Mozhda baa yak Ozw-e Arshad-e Taliban" [Leak of Conversation of Wahid Mozhda with a Leading Taliban Member], Hasht-e Sobh, November 21, 2013,

44. Halima Kazem, "Shaky Afghan-Taliban Peace Talks Run into Pakistani Obstruction," Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 2014,

45. "Mohammadi: Khoshi Shawi Taliban Berta da Jagre Lekale ta Teli" [Released Taliban Have Returned to Fighting], March 30, 2014,

46. Alissa Rubin, "U.S. Scrambles to Save Taliban Talks after Afghan Backlash," New York Times, June 19, 2013,

47. Abdul Rahim Saqib, "Iran ta da Talibano da Rasmi Hayat da Safar pa Ara" [About the Trip of Taliban's Official Representatives to Iran], Jihad Ghag, June 3, 2013,

48. "Da Qatar la Daftara da Talibano Bairagh Ista Shwa" [Taliban Flag Was Removed from Qatar Office], June 20, 2013, Tolo News,

49. "Hamla bar Hotel Serena az soi Estekhbarat Beroni Anjam Shoda" [Serena Hotel Attack Was Carried Out by Foreign Intelligence Agencies], Tolo News, March 24, 2014,

50. Kevin Sieff, "Karzai Suspects U.S. Is Behind Insurgent-Style Attacks, Afghan Officials Say," Washington Post, January 27, 2014,

51. Farooq Wardak, BBC Persian interview, March 17, 2011,; "Aqa-e Wardak Wazir Ma'aref ast ya Sokhangoi Taliban" [Is Mr. Wardak the Minister of Education or a Spokesman for the Taliban], Afghan Paper, January 18, 2011,; "Defa-e Farooq Wardak az Taliban; Hokomat Karzai ba Modafeh Sarsakht Terrorism Tabdil Shoda" [Farooq Wardak's Defending Taliban; Karzai's Government Has Become a Strong Supporter of Terrorism], March 17, 2013, Kabul Press,

52. Amrullah Saleh, "Shekast Stratezhik Taliban Mostalzem Basij Melli Ast" [Strategic Defeat of the Taliban Requires National Mobilization], Hasht-e Sobh, March 19, 2011,

53. Ahmad Majidyar, "What Does Rabbani's Assassination Mean?" National Review Online, September 20, 2011,

54. Zabihullah Mujahid, "We Do Not Recognize Any President in the Presence of the Islamic Emirate," Voice of Jihad, April 13, 2014,

55. Eli Lake, "Exclusive: U.S. Won't Seize Taliban Ally's Cash," Daily Beast, February 7, 2014,

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