The aim of this report is to examine the evolution of the idea of ‘talking to the Taliban’, analyse its underlying drivers and assumptions, and capture key lessons that may be of use in future conflicts when talks with insurgents will again be on
- To date, efforts to talk to the Taliban have been a failure. Given the short time remaining before the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat mission in December 2014, there are few grounds for optimism that further talks might lead to a major political breakthrough.
- Talking to the Taliban became official policy by osmosis rather than deliberation and strategic choice. For that reason, the idea has not been systematically evaluated or implemented in a clear-minded fashion. This echoes the experience of the Soviet Union trying to negotiate itself out of Afghanistan.
- Talks with the Taliban have been characterised by wishful thinking, bad timing and poor management. Some advocates of talks have overstated their case by stressing the ‘ripeness’ of the Taliban for a deal. More importantly, however, many of those who have converted to supporting negotiations since 2009 have done so too late in the day to achieve any serious benefits.
- The strategic rationale for talks has never been clear. Those who have advocated talks with the Taliban have done so for different reasons at different times. This has clouded and confused official policy. Some hoped to ‘peel off’ low-level insurgents, whereas others preferred to encourage the development of a Taliban political party; some hoped to divide the movement, whereas others hoped to massage it in such a way that Taliban ‘doves’ were strengthened over ‘hawks’; some hoped to deal directly with the movement’s leaders while others saw them as the chief obstacles to progress. Many of these strands were in operation at the same time, contributing to a sense that talks were conducted in a strategic vacuum.
- The real ‘game-changer’ in Afghanistan is the departure of ISAF troops, not a moderate awakening within the Taliban movement. A shift toward ‘moderation’ among the Taliban has been much overstated and not borne out by events on the ground. The real impetus for the tentative talks which have taken place are the major troop withdrawals that began in 2012. The internal dynamics of the Taliban movement are in flux but it is far from clear whether its future trajectory will make it more amenable to a peace deal.
- Negotiations face a number of fundamental obstacles which have never been adequately addressed, and which are markedly similar to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. The most important is that the Taliban refuse to engage with the Afghan government under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, despite American insistence that talks be Afghan-led. Another is the fact that Pakistan has not been effectively harnessed into the process. Both the Soviet and ISAF/NATO experiences in Afghanistan illustrate the difficulties of trying to strike a bargain while rushing for the exit.
- As we move into the last phase of the ISAF mission, with a renewed (and perhaps final) effort to reinvigorate the talks, the first step should be to learn from previous mistakes. Even if this last-ditch effort fails, there are lessons in the experience thus far which should be taken into account for future negotiations with insurgents: namely, that ownership of the process should rest with one actor; that all main stakeholders must be involved; that talks need to have a clear strategic rationale and purpose; and that the needs of the ‘silent majority’ must be recognised.
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