Rumors of Negotiation in Afghanistan

Questions linger over whether Taliban “negotiators” are actually speaking for the group.

Readers who have been following the news from Afghanistan lately have undoubtedly come across several front page articles suggesting that representatives of the Taliban have engaged in “peace talks” with the government in Kabul. The New York Times has run a couple of stories to this affect. On October 20 for instance the newspaper wrote that, “Taliban elite, aided by NATO, join talks for Afghan peace.”

Talks to end the war in Afghanistan involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership, who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops, officials here say.

From all of these stories — and from that single quotation — one may get the picture that the Taliban’s rank and file are being decapitated on the battlefield, Mullah Mohammad Omar is shivering in his boots, and that the United States are brokering a peace deal that could finally end the war after ten long years. Last week I warned that reports of NATO turning the page in the war should be viewed with the utmost caution. Indeed, the reports themselves are a bit inaccurate, in that most simplify a very complex situation.

For instance, both The New York Times and The Washington Post frequently label the Taliban-Karzai discussions as peace talks, which imply that both factions are hammering out details for what a postwar Afghanistan will look like. Throughout the history of warfare, the term “peace talks” is generally invoked when all major sides of the conflict have come to a mutual understanding that the continuation of the war is detrimental to everyone’s interests. In Vietnam, this meant a peace agreement between the United States, South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese government — one that unfortunately collapsed within two years. In the Gulf War, the end of hostilities culminated in the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait in exchange for an end to coalition operations. In other words, peace talks lead to peace agreements, which end fighting and establish a postwar order that aims to ensure stability in the future.

The ongoing talks with the Taliban should not be considered in the same light. For one, there is no evidence that the Taliban leaders that are participating in the discussions represent the entire Quetta Shura organization. Mullah Omar, the top official in the Quetta Shura, continues to deny that his group is engaging with Hamid Karzai’s administration. The Haqqani network, perhaps the most dangerous segment of the insurgency in Afghanistan today, virtually remains irreconcilable. And the Pakistani intelligence service has yet to endorse Taliban talks with the Afghan government.

If anything, the discussions in Kabul should be seen more as efforts toward reconciliation, not a outreach to establish peace. Taliban fighters, at least in the mid to upper ranks of the organization, are clearly hedging their bets and trying to solidify their position once the United States get out of the country completely. The problem is that those Taliban who are talking may not be representing the entire organization. Rather, these Taliban “negotiators” may be trying to ensure that they personally gain some sort of powerful position once NATO soldiers depart. There is a huge difference between negotiating for personal survival and negotiating for an end to the war.

As long as Pakistani intelligence holds the reigns of the Quetta Shura and dictates what they can and cannot do, we should all question whether current exchange between Taliban and Afghan government officials is truly the beginning of a comprehensive US-NATO-Afghan-Taliban peace accord.

Clearly, any insurgent who wishes to switch sides and join the Afghan government is a welcoming development. And if the Times and Washington Post reports are to be believed, both low and high level Taliban commanders are exploring the option. But a few fighters that are willing to ditch the Quetta Shura cannot, and should not, be interpreted as a peace negotiation.

I’m sure General David Petraeus recognizes this crucial difference. But it certainly isn’t being portrayed that way in the media.