Afghanistan: Ripe for Negotiation or Past Expiration?


In the years that Richard Holbrooke served under President Obama before he passed away in December, he lobbied for the opening of diplomatic talks with the Taliban. This idea, for many Americans, is a difficult pill to swallow and signifies a failure in achieving the original goal of eradicating “terrorists and those who harbor them." However, as the war in Afghanistan increasingly looks like a military stalemate, the Obama administration appears to be pursuing a more active role in talks with the Taliban that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been attempting for quite some time. As the United States looks to remove the majority of its forces from Afghanistan by 2014, a political solution rather than a military answer appears to be an ever-increasing likelihood. 

The Taliban has never been a homogenous organization, and as a result of military efforts in Afghanistan, it has splintered even further. To this end, some factions of the Taliban have gone through extra efforts over the past few years to present themselves as a more “moderate” group and put space between its ideology and that of al-Qaeda. Many believe that if these groups can be brought into negotiations, they will have a stake in participating in the Afghan political system. If the U.S. can aid the Afghan government in this process, perhaps a more tenable peace can be achieved and turned over to Afghan security forces when international troops are removed. 

Proponents of this strategy point to the success of the British government in negotiations with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The U.S. also pursued a similar strategy with insurgents in Iraq in order to control violence that was spiraling out of control. Many people are unaware that former members of the Taliban already play an active role in the central government today. President Hamid Karzai has been reaching out to the Taliban for quite some time and has pushed to have members of the Taliban removed from a “blacklist” imposed by the U.N. in order to bring them to the table. Although the United States has helped facilitate these talks for some time (one embarrassing example is that of a Taliban impostor flown in from Pakistan) it appears that the U.S. will be taking a more assertive role in these preliminary talks.

In the past, the U.S. has demanded that before talks can take place, Taliban members must lay down their guns, renounce al-Qaeda, and honor the current Afghan constitution. It seems now that the U.S. will begin talks in the hope that these preconditions turn into outcomes of negotiations. Since September, President Karzai has named his peace council (a council that contains eight women) and members of the Taliban have asked for a “neutral” location in which to hold negotiations.

While there is obvious dialogue between the Afghan government and factions of the Taliban, the key to these talks will be the success of the troop surge of 2009 and increased drone strikes in Pakistan. The window of “conflict ripeness” is often found when neither side in a conflict believes they can bring about an end to the violence by military means. According to General Petraeus as he testified before Congress last week, Taliban “momentum” has been stymied in much of the country, but these gains are likely to be challenged as winter becomes spring in Afghanistan. The hope would be that these talks are occurring while NATO has significantly weakened Taliban forces and they will consent to negotiations in order to avoid further violence. Likewise, as support for the war is dropping fast at home, the United States has come to the realization that there will be no victory via eradication of the Taliban. These combined factors may just bring about successful negotiations with some members of the Taliban.

Henry Kissinger famously noted that a "stalemate is the most propitious condition for settlement." Although many cringe at the thought of the Taliban playing an important role in Afghanistan once more, it seems to be increasingly clear to all sides a military solution is untenable. Many look at the current reality and see that it is high time for tea with the Taliban. Others fear that promises made for a troop draw down in July 2011 and a removal of forces by 2014 undermine any hope for a political solution as many members of the Taliban wait in tribal areas for the conflict to dwindle down and avoid negotiations.

What do you think? Is a political solution possible in Afghanistan?

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