The Futility of Talking to the Taliban, For Now

Neither the Taliban nor the United States stand to gain from resuming peace negotiations.

An Australian service light armored vehicle drives through Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 29, 2011
An Australian service light armored vehicle drives through Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 29, 2011 (USCC)

The face-saving strategy of the United States to facilitate an honorable withdrawal from Afghanistan — reaching a political settlement with the Taliban — seems to be failing.

Last month, Mullah Omar’s Taliban leadership announced their decision to suspend the peace negotiations. The official reason given for the pullout was the delay and apparent reluctance of the Americans to release prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an important prerequisite for the talks to be held.

However, the fact that the suspension came in the wake of the massacre of seventeen civilians in Kandahar by an American soldier clearly suggests a link between the two.

The massacre was the most recent in a series of incidents — the burning of Qurans at the Bagram base and the emergence of a video of American soldiers urinating over the dead bodies of Afghans — that has resulted in protests and demonstrations against the presence of foreign troops.

The vulnerability of the foreign soldiers in Afghanistan and government and military advisors currently stationed there has increased as a result. There have been more attacks perpetrated by members of the Afghan National Security Forces on their foreign counterparts as well — a direct consequence of the anti-Americanism.

Whether these are the result of Taliban infiltration or people acting on their accord, it does make it tougher for the United States to take on the Taliban militarily, just as this year’s fighting season is set to commence.

Although peace talks may yet resume, the intensification of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan in recent months will make it harder to reach a settlement with the Taliban if they do.

A satisfactory settlement, from the American point of view, seems highly untenable to begin with. The United States cannot hope to extract significant concessions from the Taliban from a weaker bargaining position. Although the Taliban are probably not capable of ensuring a military victory similar to their triumph in the 1990s, the NATO powers are and probably will not be in a position to coerce them into accepting their demands either.

The present situation is likely to strengthen the hardliners within the Quetta Shura who have been ideologically opposed to holding talks with the Americans from the start. They have always alleged that the United States mistreat Islam and the Afghan people and could use the recent incidents to get their way. Mullah Omar may be keen to avoid an internal struggle at this critical juncture and give in to the hardliners.

It is not just the internal squabbling which should concern Mullah Omar. If that was the case, he would not have agreed to the peace talks in the first place.

His political calculations are guided by realism, as evident from his decision to negotiate with the Americans, and it is this realism that would compel him to pay heed to the present climate in the country.

All major political groups in Afghanistan are taking note of the prevailing sentiments in the country in order to win brownie points with the masses. President Hamid Karzai has stood his ground during negotiations for the American-Afghan security partnership under the pretext of preventing further erosion of Afghan sovereignty. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction, the Hizb-e-Islami, a key opponent of Mullah Omar’s, called off peace talks as well. If the Taliban were the only ones to resume negotiations, it could further erode their legitimacy.

Finally, especially in light of recent American concessions on counterinsurgencies tactics, notably the transfer of control of the Bagram prison to the Afghan army and possible suspension of or at least reduction in night raids, the Taliban may decide that all they have to do is wait for the bulk of the remaining NATO troops to withdraw in 2014 to reclaim the initiative.