It’s become the subject of legend, now made flesh in a way only a think tank could provide: a 130-page manual from The Century Foundation for how to reconcile with the Taliban!
Many components to this report are important to the process of understanding the political and pragmatic context of any plan to negotiate with the Taliban. The report ably summarizes the current stalemate of the war; the realistic perspective that even a grand bargain with the Taliban probably won’t on its own bring peace; and the necessity to begin this process now. This last point is especially important, as right now American power, influence, and expenditure has peaked in Afghanistan. There are no plans to increase it ever again—all of the discussions within the government, now, rest upon the terms and the pace under which we gradually reduce both to some lower threshold.
Many of the building blocks one would expect in a peace settlement framework are there, and don’t bear too much exploration. Where things get really interesting is the political process the task force maps out. As an example, they suggest “an internationally designated facilitator who could broach sensitive issues without undermining the relevant players’ respective negotiating positions.” One might be forgiven for thinking we already have a UN to do that. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is headed by Steffan de Mistura, and he has supported the idea of a UN-designated facilitator… so long as that facilitator works for him. Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the major forces driving this task force, has already ruffled feathers with this suggestion, given the universal assumption that he would want that position himself; while Holbrooke, one of the officials who opposed the idea, is dead, there’s no reason to think either de Mistura or General Petraeus have dropped their opposition to handing over control of political negotiations.
The assumptions built up about the Taliban, contained within the Task Force Report, merit consideration. They are largely in line with Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s argument that the Taliban can be separated from al Qaeda and are interested in negotiations. While I find both papers persuasive, I found Martine van Bijlert’s exploration today of the abstractions and misconceptions that accompany this sort of talk disquieting, and similarly persuasive. “Although talking to the Taleban leadership was not necessarily fully dismissed,” she explains of Afghan attitudes, “it was never very clear what it might bring. It still isn’t.” This strikes me as a critical break in perception: there is a strong desire among International elites for a political settlement; among both American political elites, and especially among Afghanistan’s people, where the decision really counts, there is not a settled desire for talks under the conditions the Task Force lays out here.
But for the most part, this report is engaging, and certain to prompt some detailed discussions about what we can expect, and how we should react to the prospect of negotiating with the Taliban. There are some weaknesses, too, however, and they threaten to obscure the good points of the report. One, and one of the most minor, is a picked nit over language, tone, and syntax. Because this is a consensus document written by a lot of former senior diplomats, the report reads like… a consensus document written by a lot of former senior diplomats. That is not a compliment. There’s no real solution for this, either—it is just the nature of consensus documents written by senior officials, regardless of topic.
More important is the report’s treatment of Pakistan. The report indicates that Pakistan’s leadership has “affirmed its willingness to participate in a political resolution to the conflict and emphasized its ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and influence their decision-making” (emphasis mine). While this point is interesting on its own, and their followup note that excluding Pakistan will guarantee failure is absolutely right, I was surprised to see something very important missing: Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Literally, the only mention of “intelligence” in reference to Pakistan is on page 21 in reference to covert ISI support to the Taliban after their defeat in 2001. That this support—and especially ISI’s flouting of the public statements of Pakistan’s political leadership over support for the Taliban—is neglected is a serious error in discussing the political and security contexts of any negotiations process. The Task Force report does not once mention the ISI, despite the sizable role the agency plays over Taliban operations—to include massively fatal bombings inside Afghanistan against Indian targets. To discuss a regional arrangement, and Pakistani influence on the Taliban, without discussing ISI’s activities and policies is bizarre and woefully incomplete—especially considering the current break in settlement talks over an errant drone strike.
Despite that shortcoming, however, this is an important document. Close watchers of Afghanistan will see no surprises here (and will most likely be bored rehashing these issues), but the thoroughness of the framework makes it an important contribution to the literature of a political process in Afghanistan. While the specifics remain uncertain—almost every personality involved in the war has the potential to undo it, including in the military—this is at least one way we can contemplate how to transition from “COINy War” to “permanent politics.” This could all still go up in flames, but at least it presents by far the most credible alternative to our massive military presence in Afghanistan.