The Brahimi-Pickering Task Force

by Joshua Foust on 3/23/2011 · 9 comments

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.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Don Bacon March 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm

There are lots of serious errors.

1. What is the current situation, is it stalemate (TCF report), marked security deterioration (UN) or hard fought progress (Petraeus)?
2. Beyond recognizing the ISI influence with the Taliban, how about the larger regional issue of Pakistan v. India?
3. How does all this fit in with the U.S. State Department’s Central Asia — Silk Road strategy?
4. Regarding the ISI again, failure to recognize the Pakistan ISI-civilian chasm.
5. What about domestic U.S. political/congressional support?

Good intentions are not enough.

CE March 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I didn’t read the report, nor do I care to; I have had enough pie-in-the-sky diplomatic platitudes just by reading messieurs Brahimi Y Pickering’s Op-Ed in the Times.

It’s paragraphs like these that piss me off to no end:

A peace settlement would require a domestic element — a political order broadly acceptable to Afghans — and an international element: severing Taliban ties to Al Qaeda and containing rampant drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan. Both elements would need to be negotiated along parallel tracks.

None of it will be easy: Afghans will have to allow for fair representation of the Taliban in central and provincial governments; get the Taliban to abide by election results; determine the proper role of Islamic law in regulating dress, behavior and the administration of justice; protect human rights and women’s rights; decide whether and how to bring perpetrators of war atrocities to justice; and incorporate some Taliban fighters into police and security forces. A guaranteed withdrawal of foreign forces, as the insurgency has demanded, would almost certainly be part of a deal.

Really? That’s what it’s gonna take, Jeeves? You don’t say! Well, at least we all know what the elements of a just and peaceful end-state would look like—reality, practicality and the laws of physics notwithstanding.

TJM March 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I’m still waiting for an explanation of why negotiation should occur at high-levels, rather than being the focus of small-scale operations. I suspect Afghans are no more enthusiastic about having a Taliban-GIRoA power-sharing arrangement foisted upon them than they were about having the current corrupt GIRoA foisted upon them.

Daniel Serwer March 24, 2011 at 7:18 pm

There is no sign of a mutually hurting stalemate, which is what the academics will tell you is needed for an agreement. But negotiations can have purposes other than agreement, and agreements have been reached without mutually hurting stalemates. Moreover, negotiations are low cost. Even with a very low probability of success, they are worth undertaking, especially if your domestic constituency is unhappy with continuing the war.

TJM March 26, 2011 at 3:00 pm

“… negotiations can have purposes other than agreement… negotiations are low cost. Even with a very low probability of success, they are worth undertaking, especially if your domestic constituency is unhappy with continuing the war.”

Those are the only sound arguments that I’ve read or heard for engaging in high-level, GIRoA-Taliban negotiations.

kız March 25, 2011 at 1:55 am

Yes like Pakistan is on page 21 in reference to covert neo ISI support to the Taliban after their defeat in 2001.

Render March 25, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Foust – Isn’t this (once again) somewhat analogous to attempting to separate the Waffen SS from the Wermacht in the hopes of negotiating with the Wermacht’s leadership? (it was tried repeatedly and didn’t work then either)


“There is no sign of a mutually hurting stalemate, which is what the academics will tell you is needed for an agreement.”

Academics with tenure can negotiate from their ivory towers without fear of losing their jobs, much less their lives. History shows that negotiated settlements (to wars) most often happen when one side or the other gains an irreversible upper hand. A successful negotiation with the Taliban may reduce the fighting inside of Afghanistan somewhat, or may not. But it will not end the war…

Moving the entire Coalition into the FATA would also reduce the fighting inside of Afghanistan.


Steve Magribi March 26, 2011 at 12:01 am

Thank You Mr. Foust, for posting this.

What this war needs is new ideas, different angles, and different eyes on the goal. There is no ONE easy solution so all comers should be invited to express possibilities.

Experience Counts. There is a new team coming one by one to Kabul. We need experience. We need new ideas.

We need to replace current Dons like “I can’t seem to figure this out” Eikenberry, as well as “This one is not working out very well for me” Petreaus and the rest of the current discredited team in Kabul

More good ideas and more Experience. This Brahimi paper does have its role and it is greatly appreciated by all of us watching the roads for IEDs 365 days a year. Thank You.

Dishonesty? March 26, 2011 at 9:10 am

Interesting book Ghost War,Steve Coll,page 513-512
“Thomas Pickering had become Clintons diplomatic intimidator,a designated bad cop assigned deliver tought messages that other officials in liaison roles felt they could not afford to send
A bald,bulky diplomat with several decades of experience in political and intelligence issues,Pickering often leaned into his guests as he could unfurl rapid-fire sentences with direct and solemn force.

hmm,realy negotiator???

Previous post:

Next post: