By Grey Maggiano
Much has been made of the recent announcement that the U.S. and the Taliban may begin negotiations through a Taliban proxy office in Qatar, but one question raised by the Taliban’s public statement has gone largely unaddressed: Was the exclusion of the Afghan Government from any potential negotiations intentional? And if so why?
The Washington Post makes more of this distinction than NYT or Foreign Policy, though multiple sources have pointed out that the intention is for talks to be between the U.S. and the Taliban. Since, other than nasty ISAF tweets, the Taliban isn’t particularly responsive – let’s assume this IS intentional.
Then why? Could this be strategic on the Taliban’s part? It’s no secret that tensions have increased between the U.S. and Afghanistan in the last year. U.S. officials have frequently expressed frustration at President Karzai’s public statements and his policy decisions, so perhaps the Taliban are trying to cast themselves as a reasonable, or at least even, counterweight to the current erratic leadership? This is an appealing argument, but the Taliban are well aware of how they are thought of by the international coalition (not to mention their previous record on human rights) and they also know their reputation can’t be undone just by setting up an office in Qatar.
Then maybe this is an effort to force Karzai’s hand? Challenge him into negotiating? Unlikely, given Karzai’s (and the Government of Afghanistan’s) efforts to reach out to the Taliban privately, not to mention Karzai’s frequent public statements offering reconciliation to his “long lost brothers and friends” and blaming outside elements for instigating violence and driving a wedge between the Afghan Taliban and the Government. True, recent attacks on the Karzai family and more direct assaults on Afghan Government (vs. ANA or ISAF) elements on the part of the Taliban have strained relations; but even in these instances Karzai has blamed Pakistan for propping up certain elements of the insurgency. This bending over backward has led to multiple missteps in negotiations, from faulty payments, to embarrassing leaks, and assassinations.
So what then? Maybe this is a public relations move on the Taliban’s part. One can question the Asia Foundation Survey’s methodology, accuracy, and political motivations –but like it or not- it is some of the best data we have on Afghan public opinion. One thing it unquestionably has established is that every year, better than half of those surveyed think that corruption is worse than the year before (nationwide) and that corruption in people’s daily life has increased from 2006 – 2011 (in fact it is one of the few negative indicators in the survey that have increased over time). Perhaps the Taliban is saying, not to the U.S. but to Afghans, that they are the only credible partner to negotiate with right now? That this troublesome, corrupt government can no more be trusted to end the war than they can be trusted to protect people’s money or pay their bills? That they, and only they, can speak for the Afghan people?
Presumptuous? Yes. Preposterous? Definitely not. ABC news does a much better job of polling attitudes about the Taliban than Asia foundation does, and their 2010 survey showed a dramatic increase in the approval for attacks on coalition forces, as well as continued decreases in support for U.S. efforts and the Government of Afghanistan. This doesn’t mean Afghans are willing to return to pre-2001 Afghanistan, but the Taliban have been working on an image campaign of sorts in the country – voicing support for women’s education, engaging in an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, including setting up their own justice system, and embracing some aspects of the modern world including, apparently, Twitter.
For too long, the international community has blindly ignored the growing support for an alternative government in Afghanistan – one that would be less corrupt, more independent, more responsive to the Afghan public – which is exactly what the more polished elements of the Taliban movement are offering. Most importantly, only the Taliban leadership can offer the ability to demilitarize the thousands of small militias and criminal enterprises flying their flag all over Afghanistan. The concern for the U.S. should be that we might get blindsided. If WE are seen as holding up the peace process because we try and force Karzai’s involvement in the discussions, and in the process get blamed for prolonging the conflict in the Afghan Public, we stand to lose even more.
Grey Maggiano spent four years working for the U.S. government on Afghanistan reconstruction efforts and is now seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church