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Sep 29, 2010 | 10:44 GMT

4 mins read

The Necessity -- and Difficulties -- of Negotiations With the Taliban

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai made an impassioned speech on Tuesday calling for the Taliban to enter into negotiations to reach a political settlement. His office then announced the names of 68 former officials and tribal leaders who will form the High Peace Council. This council, which was decided upon in June during the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration, is to be responsible for negotiations with the Taliban — and the government in Kabul is, at least in theory, expected to abide by the agreement the council reaches. Of course, Karzai has handpicked the council members, so his interests are protected. The day before Karzai's speech, The New York Times published comments from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, that "very high-level" Taliban leaders have reached out to the "highest levels" of the Afghan government. The correlation of these events indicates that considerable movement has occurred this week on efforts to set the stage for negotiations with the Taliban. Not only did elements of the Taliban issue denials on Tuesday regarding Petraeus' assertion, but also another Taliban spokesman insisted that the Afghan people were anxiously anticipating a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. While some factions of the Taliban might be interested in a negotiated settlement, as a whole the movement has maintained considerable internal discipline and is not being forced to the negotiating table out of fear of defeat. The Taliban lose little by being at the negotiating table; they can always walk away. But negotiation and political accommodation can stem from both fear and opportunity. It is the role of force of arms to provide the former, and the current counterinsurgency strategy has not instilled — and does not appear close to instilling — that fear. But U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force efforts have not been without their tactical effect. The squeeze has been put on Taliban funds, and special operations forces raids have reduced the Taliban's ranks. There is certainly the opportunity for a settlement that brings political accommodation about sooner rather than later and at a reduced cost to the Taliban in terms of lives and effort. The Taliban lose little by being at the negotiating table; they can always walk away. And they do not harbor illusions about being able to return to power and control the country to the degree they did at the turn of the century. So the question is not one of whether talks might take place. They already have taken place behind closed doors, and they will no doubt continue. The question is what the cost will be, in terms of concessions, of convincing the Taliban to negotiate meaningfully and genuinely on a political settlement on a timeframe compatible with U.S. constraints. Because the United States, and by proxy Karzai's regime, are now at the height of their military strength, and because the Taliban — not Washington and Karzai — enjoy the luxury of time, the Taliban have little incentive to allow negotiations to proceed rapidly or make significant concessions themselves. Thus, the question becomes what price the Taliban will demand from their position of strength and whether that price is one that not only Kabul and Washington, but also Islamabad (which could well be key to a negotiated settlement), will accept. That remains very much in doubt. None of the underlying realities of the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan have suddenly shifted. The developments of recent days essentially provide additional infrastructure to facilitate negotiations, but it is unclear whether an agreement on political accommodation is reachable or on what timetable any agreement might be implemented. Nevertheless, political accommodation will both underlie and facilitate a U.S. drawdown, so the prospects for progress will warrant careful scrutiny.

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