Talking About Negotiations First Is Exactly Backwards

by Joshua Foust on 7/27/2009 · 8 comments

David Miliband gave a big speech today, in which he said the Afghan government in Kabul needs to extend its outreach to Taliban militants to make way for “the first Afghan-led election since the 1970s.” Almost as if they were listening, the Afghan government then announced a cease-fire with the militants to create space before the election in Badghis province; within 24 hours, militants attacked and killed several police officers there.

The problem with all of this is it gets things backwards. Militants are fighting in Afghanistan for many reasons, but not one of them is planting bombs and shooting at NATO because he doesn’t have sufficient opportunities to vote. Catherine Philip explains:

David Miliband’s assertion that it is time to talk to the Taleban may sound new and shocking to some. It is neither.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British Ambassador to Kabul, advocated the policy soon after arriving in Afghanistan in 2004. British diplomats and commanders were carrying it out, albeit on a small scale, until the furious intervention of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President.

Hrm. Well, she’s referring to the disastrous “negotiation” spearheaded by Michael Semple, in which the British would withdraw from Musa Qala in Helmand province in exchange for a Taliban pinky-swear not to occupy it in their absence. After eleven months of Taliban domination, the British had to rely on American support to retake the district center. When Karzai saw Semple arranging unilateral negotiations with various Taliban leaders, he declared Semple persona non grata… as any head of state would do with a supercilious Eurocrat meddling in his country’s affairs without his permission. Well, let’s give Ms. Philips another chance:

The difference this time is that Washington — and to some degree, Kabul — have at long last come over to the view that the war cannot be won without talking to at least some of the enemy… The difficulties lie in the details. Who does the talking? The Taleban negotiators come from the more moderate wing of the Government that was deposed in 2001. Most are barely involved in the insurgency.

Ms. Philips is writing solidly in the mainstream of Western discourse on Afghanistan. She could be channeling David Kilcullen or Andrew Exum, for all I know. The problem is, that process is precisely backward. The trick isn’t making sure you are speaking to the right guys, it’s making sure the time is right for speaking at all.

Right now, the U.S. has spent at least the last three years watching slow degradations of all its success stories. Despite years of effort and expert-proclaimed successes, Kunar remains more violent and disconnected from the government than ever. This is the third time in three years NATO has launched the same operation in Helmand, to no effect save declarations of victory. Seven and a half years after removing the Taliban, villagers go to them for protection from thieving and child-raping police.

So my question to all the people talking about talking is the only way to end this war: If you were a Taliban commander… would you compromise all the progress you’re been making to sit down for talks with the government? All they hear is “we’re winning,” which is an anti-reason to negotiate.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Afghan Atheist July 27, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Charlie Wilson: What is U.S. strategy?
Gust: Most strictly speaking, we don’t have one. But we’re working on it.
Charlie Wilson: Who’s ‘we’?
Gust: Me and three other guys.

myra macdonald July 28, 2009 at 1:59 am


Why can’t they do both simultaneously — build strength and see what’s on offer at the negotiating table at the same time? (they being both the Taliban and the United States/Karzai government).

Both parties are smart enough to know that there will be talks at some point in the future, so what they would be discussing now is not the actual situation on the ground but projected strength in two, three years time.

Also, and this is quite unrelated to the above point, do you see any room for short-term CBMs – eg something on the treatment of prisoners in exchange for a promise not to attack girls’ schools?


Dafydd July 28, 2009 at 4:00 am


the Taliban ARE building strength while checking out the various negotiation options. When a good offer comes along (ceasfire in Bagdis) they take it.

Doesn’t stop them shooting and bombing.

Problem is we can’t seem to realise that our strength in two to three years time will be zilch. We will be desperate for any deal to get outta there.

David M July 28, 2009 at 8:58 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/28/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Steve Connors July 28, 2009 at 10:29 am

“When Karzai saw Semple arranging unilateral negotiations with various Taliban leaders, he declared Semple persona non grata… as any head of state would do with a supercilious Eurocrat meddling in his country’s affairs without his permission.”

Is this the same supercilious Eurocrat who was living among the Afghans before you arrived in high school? The same one who speaks fluent Dari and Pashto? The same one who was in the country throughout the period that Hamid Karzai was living comfortably in exile?

I think there’s a story there Joshua but you don’t seem to have grasped it.

Nick July 28, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I think a bit of background colour on British domestic issues is required. The New Labour administration that Miliband represents is losing credibility daily. Hammered in recent local authority and European elections, losing previously safe parliamentary seats in by-elections, copping flak on the expenses brouhaha, a teetering economy … it’s been a wretched summer for Gordon Brown and co. On top of this, Gen. Richard Dannatt, chief of the General Staff, has been unprecedentedly outspoken for a serving senior commander in demanding that the government supply his troops with additional helicopters and anti-IED devices. Most major media outlets – at least for the moment – seem to be dispensing the ‘let’s negotiate with the Taliban’ discourse. And then you have the likes of Semple and Rory Stewart (who are widely-regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the go-to guys for the inside skinny on Afghanistan-relateed matters) adding their voices to the mix.

The argument is that the Coalition/Nato is not in a position of strength from which to negotiate … well, it’s not simply about military issues, it’s about politics too. The British government, for one, desperately needs some ‘good news’ from Afghanistan to shore up it’s ever weakening credibility and rapidly declining popularity. In any case, the assumption is that New Labour will be ejected from office in the next general Election.

Toryalay Shirzay July 28, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Looking at readers’comments above,it is obvious the US and NATO countries have not done a proper job of informing their citizens about the nature of this war,thus their domestic political difficulties.This war in Afghanistan has been badly planned and executed from its inception and now we see the fruit of their half-assed job.Even though it is more difficult to win this war now,it is not too late.A fundemental problem is improper understanding of who the Taleban are.Who are the Taleban? What do they represent and what is their mindset??
The Taleban are the vanguard of PANISLAMISM put together by Arabs and their Pakistani managers to consolidate Islamic power in Afghanistan and all of central ASIA which then be deployed as bulwark against India and Israel backed by nuclear weapons from Pakistan.This is the big picture.The same Taleban -like forces were the agents which invaded India and brought Islam there by the sword which subsequently cut India apart.All armchair experts may need a shake-down to wake up to above facts!The Taleban are not as strong now as they were before the 9/11 attack and they are now in the nip it in the bud phase.It is still going to be a bloody fight because for the Taleban to kill or be killed is a win-win situation because Allah will reward them anywayThis Islamic ideology makes them even fiercer.The reason the Taleban are gaining some ground now is because the US and NATO have empowered the wrong Afghans when they went there and have allowed Iran to help these corrupt Afghans write the Afghan constitution.For the West to win this war,all or most of these corrupt Afghans who happen to be nasty abusers must be disempowered .There are many Afghans who are genuine victims of all these wars and the ugly evil Islamic system who yearn for a little freedom and prosperity,lets empower these ;this will go along way in defeating the Taleban and Islamic fascism .and only then the West can claim success.Lets go now and stop shooting yourselves in the foot.

Bart July 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm

“”Militants are fighting in Afghanistan for many reasons, but not one of them is planting bombs and shooting at NATO because he doesn’t have sufficient opportunities to vote.””

And you would know this because you have talken to many Taliban fighters?

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