On an evening this past spring, near midnight, a land cruiser pulled up to the house of a government official in Kandahar city. The vehicles carried a senior Taleban figure, sent by Mullah Omar, and some tribal elders. That night the group met secretly with a leading Afghan official and discussed the course of the war and the prospects for negotiations. After the meeting the Taliban figure moved to a hideout outside of the city, before eventually disappearing across the border into Pakistan.
It was typical of the types of contacts that have been occurring between senior Taleban leaders and Afghan officials for years. There have been scores of clandestine meetings between the warring sides, sometimes simply to establish a rapport and sometimes in an attempt to build a more substantive dialogue. These include leaders meeting Afghan officials on their own initiative in some cases, and in others Mullah Omar or the entire senior leadership sending representatives. Thus when NATO and US officials announced recently that there have been attempts by the Taleban to reach out to the Afghan government, it should not be seen as a shift in the insurgents’ approach. Rather, by recognizing these attempts, it is Washington that is changing course. Nor are the contacts a sign that actual negotiations are near; rather, their recognition merely signals Western fears that mission failure is afoot.
The US’ initial strategy was to talk and shoot—step up raids and targeted killings against insurgent commanders, while pressuring (or enticing) them to quit the fight. While officials spoke often about reconciliation, their terms—abandon the armed opposition and recognize the Afghan government and constitution—were those of surrender, the type a victor imposes on the vanquished. Talks with senior leaders (except when discussing a possible surrender) were strictly ruled out, and as recently as this summer the US was placing insurgent leaders known to have communicated with the Kabul government on terror black lists. Under the US plan, a more broad-based reconciliation process, involving the Taleban as a whole, as well as other sectors of society, would have to wait until the US military could recapture momentum on the battlefield.
But ten months into the new US approach to Afghanistan, shifting momentum has not come. Instead, 2010 is the bloodiest year on record for this war, with insurgent-initiated attacks through the first half of this year up by 60 per cent compared to last year, according to one tally; the Taleban have been able to replace commanders as quickly as they are killed; the reach of the insurgency and the area under their control is at its height; and showcase offensives meant to mark progress, like Marja, have failed.
In some inner circles in Washington and ISAF, the lack of progress became impossible to ignore. According to sources who in recent months met with senior ISAF figures, by August some began to rethink the approach, and admit that all options—including sanctioning dialogue with the senior insurgent leadership—should be placed on the table. Then this month Gen. Petraeus and others began to openly acknowledge contacts between the two sides and even agreed not to attack or capture Taleban figures who travel to Kabul. Officials presented the news as evidence that the Taleban are under pressure and were forced to reach out to Kabul, when in reality it is the US and its allies that are under pressure.
Such recognition does not mean, however, that we are on the path to a negotiated settlement. There still does not appear to be coherence between the various actors in Washington or in Afghanistan on the key questions: Are the talks meant to provide a way to peel away senior leaders from the rest of the group, or as a precursor to negotiations between both sides? Will all sides come together to reconfigure the Afghan state (a ‘Bonn Two’, as some have called it) or will the Taleban be expected to accept something similar to the current configuration? Will broader sections of Afghan society—former Northern Alliance figures, civil society representatives etc.—have a role, will the process be conducted mainly between Karzai’s networks and the Taleban, or some combination of the two? And what approach to take with Pakistan?
Nor are things clear from the Taleban’s side. While leaders in Quetta have been probing the government side for some time, there does not appear to be any consensus yet on the approach. And as ISAF’s assassination campaign succeeds in killing or capturing field commanders, they are replaced by a new generation of younger recruits, who lack ties to the senior leadership. Recently in Paktia province Quetta sent an alim to reprimand a group of young commanders who were breaking the organization’s rules. But the defiant young commanders killed the cleric. While such incidents are still isolated, the danger is that as the Taleban undergo a massive demographic change in the coming years, this trend accelerates, and the ability of Quetta to enforce decisions on its rank-and-file will be diminished.
Without such fundamental questions being resolved, particularly about Washington’s approach, contacts will likely remain furtive and tentative. This could mean that we will continue talking about talking for quite a long time.