The Failed Negotiation Opportunity

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by Joshua Foust on 2/14/2012 · 1 comment

Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai have a typically penetrating story about dissent in the Taliban ranks over negotiating with the U.S.:

Disclosure of the leadership’s secret talks in Qatar—confirmed and driven home by the group’s opening of a liaison office in the emirate’s capital, Doha—has devastated the insurgency’s ranks. The previously unified movement is splitting, if not shattering, as doubts grow among its members about the logic of their once-unshakable commitment to jihad. Many formerly loyal fighters like Jamal have become confused and demoralized. Although there have been no reports so far of any large-scale desertions, some ranking Taliban admit they’re worried about the possibility. “I fear there is a serious risk of defections,” says a Taliban logistics officer. Intentionally or not, Washington’s decision to put out serious peace feelers to the group has sowed dissension among the insurgents, even before the talks have made any real progress.

This is probably a bit overstated — we knew the insurgency was already splintering & radicalizing under ISAF’s HVT campaign, for example — but it’s also no surprise. Despite his command of the vast majority of the insurgency’s fealty, negotiating with Mullah Omar was never going to promise peace or a complete cessation of the fighting.

What will really address the insurgency in Afghanistan is the creation of a political framework whereby the many insurgents fighting the government in Kabul don’t have to oppose the Karzai regime with fighting because they have a political process to work through. The goal of forging a new political framework should be at the heart of any negotiations process with the Taliban, but unfortunately, the politics of the war seem to be spiraling out of control. And meanwhile, while it’s likely the Taliban will abandon al Qaeda as a counterproductive distraction from their campaign to take over Afghanistan, there is no longer any real reason to assume an official rejection of the terror group will come out of the negotiations.

The current difficulty of negotiating with a fractured insurgency in Afghanistan makes for a really interesting contrast with the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. According to documents declassified at the request of GW’s National Security Archive, the Pakistani ISI offered to help the U.S. negotiate the hand over of al Qaeda terrorists from the Taliban to U.S. custody. As NSA puts it:

As current U.S. strategy increasingly pursues policies to reconcile or “flip” the Taliban, the document collection released today reveals Washington’s refusal to negotiate with Taliban leadership directly after 9/11. On September 13, 2001, U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin “bluntly” told Pakistani President Musharraf that there was “absolutely no inclination in Washington to enter into a dialogue with the Taliban. The time for dialog was finished as of September 11.” Pakistan, as the Taliban’s primary sponsor, disagreed. Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) Chief Mahmoud told the ambassador “not to act in anger. Real victory will come in negotiations… If the Taliban are eliminated… Afghanistan will revert to warlordism.”

Regarding the apprehension of Osama bin Laden, the ISI Chief said it was “better for the Afghans to do it. We could avoid the fallout.” Mahmoud traveled to Afghanistan twice, on September 17, aboard an American plane, and again on September 24, 2001 to discuss the seriousness of the situation with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Ambassador Chamberlin said that the negotiations were pointless since Mullah Omar “had so far refused to meet even one U.S. demand.” Chamberlin told Mahmoud his meetings with Omar were fine, but they “could not delay military planning.”

The memos they published, which tell this story, are remarkable. America after 9/11 was angry and hurt, and it acted rashly. That anger has now carried both the U.S. and Afghanistan well beyond what anyone really wanted in those first few days after the attacks. Not even Donald Rumsfeld (pdf) wanted to be fighting a war at this scale for this long 10+ years after first going on, even if you can see in those early documents the clear bloodthirstiness that (continues to) guide U.S. policy.

But when reflecting back on the last 10 years or so of not just missed but openly rejected opportunities to negotiate a rational end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, one has to wonder: what, exactly, should our expectations be? No matter what they should be kept low — to a certain extent it’s better to consider the insurgency in Afghanistan as a chronic problem to be managed rather than an enemy to be defeated. But beyond such anodyne considerations there’s not much we can *really* hope for, unless the negotiations center on fundamentally reevaluating the U.S.-created Afghan social contract.

There isn’t much indication that such a thing — essentially scrapping the current government and restarting more or less from scratch — is in the cards. But absent that, and the deliberate creation of a framework whereby the insurgents and fighters have the opportunity to resolve their disputes peacefully, I don’t see how the U.S. withdrawal could possibly end in anything other than yet more civil war.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. 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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{ 1 comment }

Don Bacon February 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm

One of Foust’s best, except I don’t buy the “angry and hurt” bit. Nothing pays off like war.

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