Going to “Plan B”: Negotiations with Taliban May Shape a New Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 22

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s September announcement that he had sought the support of Saudi Arabia and other key actors to engage Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar with the intent of establishing a formal dialogue to end the violence in Afghanistan appears to mark a major shift in Kabul’s position on the Taliban. Karzai’s efforts have culminated in Saudi-mediated peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban in Mecca in late September and a three-way meeting between Karzai, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. A second round of talks is just getting underway in Saudi Arabia (Daily Times [Lahore], November 16; al-Arabiya, November 23). Karzai later admitted that he had been seeking the assistance of Saudi Arabia—one of only three countries to have maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks – to help broker formal talks with the Taliban for over two years. [1] In a November 16 statement, the Afghan president upped the ante by issuing an offer of protection for Omar and even the prospect of Taliban representation in his government in exchange for a peace deal (Dar al-Hayat, November 20; Pakistan News.net, November 16). To refute allegations from his detractors who see him as an American agent with little control of his own country, Karzai added that those in the international community who disapprove of his efforts to engage the Taliban can either remove him from power or leave Afghanistan (Frontier Post [Peshawar], November 17; Daily Times, November 19).      

Despite Karazi’s diplomatic overtures, the U.S. offer of $10 million for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of the fugitive Taliban leader, a bounty typically reserved for ranking members of al-Qaeda, still stands. [2] Revered by his loyalists as the Amir al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful), the head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the official name of Taliban-led Afghanistan –remains an enigmatic and reclusive figure. Omar is widely regarded as the man responsible for cementing the alliance between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.  Despite stark differences between the groups, the pact between Omar and bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with a crucial safe haven in Afghanistan; al-Qaeda reciprocated by providing the Taliban with financial and logistical support. As an ethnic Pashtun in a Pashtun-dominated movement, Omar’s application of Pashtunwali (The Way of the Pashtuns) – a traditional tribal code that shapes many aspects of Pashtun society in Afghanistan and Pakistan and places a premium on hospitality and the protection of guests – is also likely behind the Taliban’s commitment to ensuring the safety of bin Laden and other ranking members of al-Qaeda. [3]

Shifting Sands in Washington

Shortly after September 11, the United States mobilized support for invading Afghanistan to capture or kill bin Laden and members of al-Qaeda, and to topple the Taliban regime that had provided them with the sanctuary they required to attack the United States. During his September 20, 2001, address to a joint session of Congress and the American public, President George W. Bush admonished the Taliban for its role in aiding and abetting al-Qaeda. He also demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden, his lieutenants, and foot soldiers in Afghanistan or face serious consequences. [4] When the Taliban refused to heed Bush’s orders, the United States made it clear that it would target the Taliban alongside al-Qaeda, essentially lumping both groups together as a unified terrorist monolith requiring complete destruction.  

While the official U.S. position on the Taliban remains unchanged, a number of statements over the last few months by Bush Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, indicate that Washington is recalibrating its strategy to deal with the Taliban. General Petraeus’s experience in engaging Iraqi insurgents through the establishment of the Sahwat (Awakening) Movement has likely shaped his thinking on the realities of stabilizing Afghanistan. Furthermore, Secretary Gates went so far as to say that the United States is prepared to reconcile with the Taliban in order to achieve peace, but that any reconciliation will not include al-Qaeda (al-Jazeera, October 10). Prominent British politicians and military figures have floated similar ideas in recent months.  Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, a British commander in Afghanistan, stated the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily and a political deal of some sort is necessary to end the war (The Times [London], October 5). A number of prominent researchers also suggest that compromise with the Taliban is not only possible but would be beneficial to promoting peace and stability in the region. [5]

In contrast, the State Department spokesman criticized Karzai’s proposal to meet with Omar and ranking Taliban officials, signaling a possible rift between Kabul and Washington (McClatchy Newspapers, November 17). However, given Karzai’s reliance on the United States, it is inconceivable that he would initiate such a bold effort on an issue as politically sensitive as engaging the Taliban in peace talks without the tacit consent and approval of Washington and its allies in the region.  Although the prospect of formal talks between Omar and Kabul are highly unlikely, it is possible that Karzai’s overtures were aimed at other figures within the Taliban in an effort to sow divisions within the movement (McClatchy Newspapers, November 17).
 
Despite the ultraconservative Sunni fundamentalist brand of Islam practiced by the Taliban, Washington is recognizing that major differences separate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, a reality not lost on regional observers with an intimate knowledge of local politics, such as Owais Ghani, governor of Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and a vocal advocate for engaging the Taliban (The News International [Islamabad], October 10). According to Ghani, unlike al-Qaeda, which represents a violent transnational movement with a global agenda and reach, the Taliban is essentially a regional movement driven by narrow local objectives (al-Ahram Weekly, [Cairo] July 17-23). The Taliban is also a highly factionalized and fractured movement divided by tribe, region, town, and village, leaving it vulnerable to internal squabbles and rivalries. The stark differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban suggest that factions within the Taliban – the so called “moderate Taliban” – may be amenable to compromise with Kabul over their future role in Afghanistan and abandoning its alliance with al-Qaeda. [6]

While the debate in Kabul over negotiations with Omar gains momentum, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied reports that the Taliban participated in the Saudi-mediated peace talks. He also said that anyone acting on behalf of the Taliban in these efforts was acting without the consent of Omar. He also stated that the Taliban will not consider entering into talks until the 70,000-strong contingent of foreign troops leaves Afghanistan: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will continue its jihad until foreign forces are out of Afghanistan and Afghanistan is independent” (al-Jazeera, November 17). Meanwhile, in what appears to be an attempt to undermine Kabul’s diplomatic overtures, the Taliban issued a videotaped statement on November 17 claiming responsibility for an attack that claimed the lives of 10 French soldiers earlier this year and threatening attacks against Paris unless France withdraws its forces from Afghanistan (al-Arabiya, November 17; see also Terrorism Focus, September 2). The Taliban’s threat against Paris is believed to represent the first time that the group has directly threatened a target in the West.

Hard Realities and Geopolitics

There are indications that the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, coupled with a confluence of other geopolitical factors, is prompting U.S. foreign policy planners to reevaluate their strategy to combat the Taliban and include the possibility of initiating a dialogue.    

Although a number of ranking al-Qaeda figures have been captured or killed since 9/11 and numerous attacks against the United States and U.S. interests abroad have been thwarted, the Bush Administration has failed to capture or kill bin Laden and al-Qaeda second-in-command Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Barring a dramatic turn of events prior to the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, the departing Bush Administration’s inability to capture or kill al-Qaeda’s two most important figureheads will not be lost on al-Qaeda and its followers. Moreover, in the face of repeated attacks and amid losses of key personnel, al-Qaeda continues to demonstrate an impressive capability to replenish its diminishing ranks, even among the group’s cadre of operational leaders and ideologues. In this regard, many observers believe that the decision to invade and occupy Iraq distracted the United States from confronting al-Qaeda. The apparent efforts by the Bush Administration to engage elements of the Taliban should also be seen as a last push to isolate al-Qaeda in the hope of capturing or killing the fugitive al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan (or Pakistan) prior to departing office.

In another ominous trend, the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Afghan forces are contending with an increasingly lethal Taliban insurgency that is proving more resilient by the day. The Taliban controls large swaths of Afghan territory, and in many cases has been able to provide order and security in places where NATO is absent. According to a still-classified October 2008 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan, the country is in “a downward spiral” and wracked by worsening violence, terrorism, corruption, political instability, and a vibrant opium trade (New York Times, October 8). There is little doubt that the failure to quell the Taliban-led insurgency has allowed al-Qaeda to remain a relevant and viable force. The violence and instability in Afghanistan has also forced the United States to commit valuable resources to stabilizing Afghanistan instead of pursuing al-Qaeda, a mission that is becoming increasingly difficult as NATO allies reconsider their role in the region in the face of growing domestic opposition at home over extended troop deployments. There are also strong indications that al-Qaeda’s continued presence in the region is influencing the way the Taliban fight their battles.  From a tactical standpoint, the widespread use of suicide bombings in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan against military and civilian targets, a relatively new phenomenon in both theaters, illustrates the extent to which al-Qaeda influences the Taliban on the battlefield (see Terrorism Focus, April 17, 2007).  
The escalating insurgency in Afghanistan has also led to the emergence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan), an umbrella group of Pashtun tribal militias in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) who look to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan as a model. [7] The rise of the so-called Pakistan Taliban in the tribal areas, a trend often referred to as the “Talibanization” of Pakistan, presents a new series of challenges and dangers. The spread of violence and instability across Pakistan’s tribal areas and increasingly into major cities threatens to undermine stability in Washington’s nuclear-armed ally. Widespread public outcries against U.S. raids on Pakistani soil targeting suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban elements are also raising tensions between Washington and Islamabad to dangerous levels. While the country is teetering on the brink of disintegration, Pakistan’s tribal areas continue to serve as a safe haven for al-Qaeda leaders, including possibly bin Laden and Zawahiri. The tribal areas also provide al-Qaeda with a base to plot future attacks, representing a unique threat in their own right.  Pakistani tribal areas have even become a magnet for foreign-born radical volunteers from Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia (The Nation [Pakistan], October 18; The Daily Times [Lahore], April 28). At this point, there is no question that the war in Afghanistan has spread into Pakistan proper.  

While violence has subsided in Iraq in recent months, the United States is mired in delicate negotiations over its future role in the country. Meanwhile, Iraqi insurgents and militias remain heavily armed and mobilized. On the domestic front, the financial crisis and economic issues have preoccupied the Bush Administration in its waning months. While Afghanistan and foreign policy remain vital priorities, Washington’s turn inward is making itself felt in Afghanistan. Serious discussions regarding the prospect of peace talks with the Taliban would have been unheard of a few years ago. The reality on the ground suggests that an attempt to engage elements of the Taliban in negotiations is not out of the question and may in fact be necessary.

Public Reactions

Indications of a possible shift in U.S. strategy toward the Taliban have elicited heated debates in the region. Iran has expressed unease over the prospect of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. As a longtime rival of the Taliban, Iran has a history of cooperating closely with the United States in Afghanistan, especially after 9/11. At the same time, Iran is wary of the robust presence of U.S. military forces on its western and eastern flanks in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. Iran understands that while the U.S. remains mired in the violence and instability in Afghanistan (and Iraq), it is unlikely to turn its sights on Tehran. Iran is also concerned about the role of Saudi Arabia – an Iranian rival and staunch U.S. ally – in laying the groundwork for talks that may provide some legitimacy for the Taliban. The prospect of the disintegration of Pakistan also concerns Iran. At the very least, Iran is worried that it will not have an opportunity to help shape a peace settlement in Afghanistan.  According to one Iranian assessment, the apparent decision by the U.S. to explore the idea of negotiations stems from popular Afghan opposition to the U.S.-led NATO presence in the region and not resistance by the Taliban. The report also claims that the growing number of Afghan civilian casualties incurred in NATO operations has made the foreign presence in the country untenable (IRNA, October 7). The Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Dr. Ali Larijani, also criticized the idea of negotiating with the Taliban. Larijani questioned the wisdom of reaching an agreement with “terrorists” at this stage, given that the United States was so quick to launch wars in the name of fighting terrorism (Voice of the Islamic Republic, October 8).

Conclusion

The debate over whether the United States will engage the Taliban, directly or through a mediator such as Riyadh or Kabul, will continue to draw considerable attention in the months ahead. By all accounts, the departing Bush Administration may be laying the groundwork for a substantial policy shift on Afghanistan by the incoming Obama administration that will feature a framework for initiating talks.  Considering President-elect Obama’s commitment to focusing on Afghanistan and considering also the realities on the ground and at home, Washington will continue to explore its options. At the same time, Taliban elements opposed to negotiations are likely to escalate their campaign of violence with the help of al-Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in an effort to undermine any peace talks.       

Notes

1. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
2. Details regarding the U.S. Government’s reward offer for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Mullah Muhammad Omar are available at http://www.rewardsforjustice.net/index.cfm?page=MullahOmar&language=english  
3. For insights into the central role of hospitality in Pashtunwali customs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how they influence social relationships and politics, see Frederik Barth, Political Leadership among Swat Pathans (London: The Athlone Press, 1998).
4. See Official Transcript of President George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 Speech to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.
5. Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid, “From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs, 87(6), November/December 2008
6. Haroun Mir, “The Benefits of Negotiating with Moderate Taliban Leaders,” CACI Analyst (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute), April 18, 2007.
7. Graham Usher, “The Pakistan Taliban,” Middle East Report Online, February 13, 2007.