Talking with the Taliban

Fareed Zakaria is in favor of the Afghan government negotiating with the Taliban. But is reconciliation worth the cost?

President Hamid Karzai’s government is reportedly in talks with segments of the Taliban insurgency. For ten years, American and coalition forces have been battling this radical Islamic movement in Afghanistan which, before the 2001 invasion, had ruled the country for nearly five years.

Fareed Zakaria has long advocated negotiating with the Taliban. “The idea of talking to the people we’re fighting with makes sense,” he said on CNN’s GPS this Sunday. “Most civil wars end with some kind of negotiated settlement. In the Afghan case, this is inevitable.” Part of the Pashtun community sympathizes with the Taliban and probably will continue to, no matter what. “These people are not foreigners who will go away some day.”

Integrating the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political orbit is a “good idea,” according to Zakaria. President Karzai said that he was willing to talk with those Taliban fighters who had no ties with Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations on ABC’s This Week in August. General David Petraeus, currently leading Western forces in Afghanistan, similarly stressed the need of reconciliation on Meet the Press two months ago. But is it possible?

The negotiations route was proposed most notably by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, this summer. Writing in Newsweek, Haass argued that the “war of necessity,” which the United States had to wage against Al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11, is over. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network has been decimated. The chance to establish a “functional Afghan state” has passed in the meantime, since the Bush Administration refused to commit to nation building for almost eight years. Obama’s approach, to prevent the return of the Taliban altogether, is “hugely expensive” and “highly unlikely to succeed.”

Haass admitted that reconciliation — “negotiating a ceasefire with those Taliban leaders willing to stop fighting in exchange for the chance to join Afghanistan’s government” — has little chance of success: “they might decide that time is on their side if they only wait and fight.” That is why he suggested a policy of “decentralization.” Under this approach, the United States would provide arms and training to those local Afghan leaders willing to renounce the insurgency. The advantage of this option “is that it works with and not against the Afghan tradition of a weak ruling center and a strong periphery.”

Even in this event, “the Taliban would likely return to positions of power in a good many parts of the south,” however. Supposedly, the United States should prevent them from forming an independent nation there but probably won’t. Once American forces pull out, Washington is unlikely to undertake any further counterinsurgency efforts aimed at maintaining the balance of power so preciously attained. Haass’ “decentralization” scheme would ultimately lead to partition.

None of the interested powers can welcome that prospect. Foremost, the United States, which, after almost a decade of war, would leave half of Afghanistan in little better a state than it found it in 2001, still a hotbed of armed extremism.

India would object for the same reason but also because an independent Taliban power base in the south of Afghanistan would further undermine the stability of neighboring Pakistan. Part of Pakistan’s leadership, especially its military and intelligence establishment, would rather the Taliban recapture the whole of Afghanistan, not just the southwest.

Negotiating with the Taliban would further damage the United States’ leverage and prestige worldwide, warned Thomas Barnett in July.

Besides signaling surrender, such a move would offend India, already worrying about this administration’s apparent lack of commitment. Barnett stressed that “any deal that sees us choosing fragmented, impoverished Pakistan over rising, increasingly middle-class India is — by definition — strategically unsound.” Fareed Zakaria himself explained why that is so in December of last year:

South Asia is a tar pit filled with failed and dysfunctional states, save for one long-established democracy of 1.2 billion people that is the second-fastest-growing major economy in the world, a check on China’s rising ambitions, and a natural ally of the United States. The prize is the relationship with India. The booby prize is governing Afghanistan.

Barnett argued that any deal struck with the Taliban would leave the United States “at the whims of the Saudis and the Chinese.” They are the only great powers able to exert any control over Islamabad. The Obama Administration has so far failed to get China to help in Pakistan though it is reaping the rewards of America’s sacrifices in Afghanistan, scrambling for natural resources and lucrative contracts.

The alternative? Internationalize Afghanistan. Allow India to commit soldiers besides money and force China to take on some security responsibility in exchange for doing business. And, most importantly, learn from previous counterinsurgencies. There is some great power involvement in Afghanistan but it remains to be seen whether India and Russia will really contribute in a meaningful way.

At the same time the political will to sustain a full fledged counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan is deteriorating in the United States. The political leadership doesn’t appear to have the confidence to grant commanders on the ground the operational freedom necessary to fight that struggle while Western publics are no longer willing to accept the numbers of civilian and military losses which a more ruthless campaign, less concerned about winning “hearts and minds,” would likely incur. With more than a thousand American soldiers having lost their lives in Afghanistan already, the people’s patience with the war has worn thin.

So negotiation seems inevitable. Indeed, no matter Karzai’s denials, it is likely that his government is already engaged in some sort of bargaining process. Zakaria considers the absence of American negotiators rather unfortunate. “The United States has much at stake here,” he said. “It should involve itself in the process directly.”