For a while now I have been feeling uneasy over the direction the debate on ‘talking to the Taleban’ is taking. The more I listen to conversation about reaching some kind of settlement, the more I feel as if I am wading into a morass of misunderstandings and abstractions, with a potentially dangerous level of superficiality and easy assumptions.
The argument on the pro-side tends to go something like this: Afghans want peace, they are tired of war. Because the conflict cannot be won militarily, it needs to be solved politically. A political settlement involves negotiations and power sharing. So if we want peace in Afghanistan, we need to make a deal with the Taleban. This involves reaching out to its leadership. The argument is then often dressed up with speculations about what it is that the Taleban want.
All of us who have been here for a while – and of course many, many others – have something to say on what the Taleban may or may not want. But in the end we are all guessing and connecting the dots based on incomplete information that we happen to have access to – through former Taleban officials, relatives and friends of fighters or leaders, and active Taleban who don’t mind talking to foreigners. There is a tendency, now that we have decided that talking is a ‘good thing’, to highlight the information that points to a willingness, a weariness, a pragmatism or some other form of common ground, and to disregard the rest.
On the contra-side the argument goes something like this: The Taleban are killers (just watch the video of the Jalalabad shooting). The overtures towards them are a dangerous sell-out. The insistence that they will join peacefully is a ruse. There are hidden hands, incompatible ideological beliefs and tribal conspiracies. Their return to the fold will fuel ethnic discord and will lead to oppression and violence.
It is a response to the easy assumptions that suggest that the Taleban movement as a whole can be treated like ‘disgruntled brothers’ and that they will lay down their weapons once they have been listened to. But it is in itself a simplification as well and its loud insistence that these killers are beyond reason obscures the fact that different groups fight for different reasons and that there are still real prospects for reconciliation, if there were ever any serious efforts.
But there is, these loud voices aside, a wider unease. An unease that says: Who can we trust? Why is everybody pretending there is a peace process when there is none? An unease that points out that in Afghan culture and religion, not to mention common sense, reconciliation and conflict resolution requires mediation or the involvement of a respected and benign third party. It points out that those who are most likely to be shaping the talks, if anything serious every materializes, are precisely those who have shown little regard for peace in the past.
There used to be a consensus that the Afghan conflict could and needed to be solved through political means – talks, outreach, reconciliation. If you dig beneath the surface that conviction is still there, even among those who are most vocally opposing the current talk about talks. The story should by now be well-known (it has been related and repeated by government officials, tribal elders, human rights activists, journalists, whomever you ask – for years now). Many of those now fighting never meant to take up arms; they had no quarrel with the new Afghan government or the international troops. Some of them had been part of the Taleban administration and had surrendered, others had simply lain low and had welcomed the Karzai government once it took over. But it did not take long for the targeting to start. Respected leaders were killed, arrested, humiliated and marginalized – in the throes of the ongoing war on terror and as part of a brutal celebration of new found power, by those who had an axe to grind, a violent habit to entertain, or who feared attracting pending revenge if appearing weak.
It is by now widely accepted that it was, to a large extent, the behaviour of violently predatory commanders and officials, and the US policy ‘not to talk to terrorists’ (but rather to hunt them), that pushed many leaders and fighters (back) into the insurgency. It is also widely accepted that many fighters would probably stop fighting and return to their areas, if local grievances were addressed, abusive government officials and commanders linked to the international military were reined in, and guarantees for personal safety could be given.*
Many of the potentially more serious reconciliation efforts (often very localized, led by credible local leaders, and often undermined before they had a chance to take off) – those that were not overshadowed by an obsession with budgets and resources or watered down by the gullibility of foreigners (who somehow believe that a room full of bearded men has inherent magical qualities) – have tried to focus precisely on this. But outcomes were fragile at best and there was no wider framework – no signals that future abuse of power would be punished or that the personal safety of reconcilees would be guaranteed. There still isn’t.
For most Afghans it is obvious that the solution to the conflict ultimately lies in the cleaning up of their government and the establishment of a rule of law: the reining in of rampant corruption and abuse of power, the punishment of past and present brutality, the rolling-back of exaggerated favouritism and cronyism. And although talking to the Taleban leadership was not necessarily fully dismissed, it was never very clear what it might bring. It still isn’t.
The Afghan government, encouraged by the internationals, seems determined to follow the path of high-level talks. It is a path that should be tried. But it would be foolish to pretend or assume that it will automatically lead to peace (most Afghans remember all too well the various peace agreements between the PDPA government and the insurgent leaders and between the various mujahedin groups post-1992).
There needs to be much more clear-headed thinking: Who on earth is supposed to talk to whom and about what? What kind of guarantees will there be? Who are the parties? How will a possible peace deal hold, when those signing on to it do not represent the concerns of their constituencies and when the bulk of the population does not believe there is anything of substance going on?
Many Afghans have commented in the past that the real reconciliation that is still to take place is between the government and its people. That there are still the acutely pending issues of past and present abuses. That they really don’t want to see more amnesties that lead to continued impunity.
What if the government manages to make a deal with (parts of) the Taleban leadership and it turns out that neither side has the trust or backing of the population? Surely that must be a problem.
* There is sometimes a tendency – usually by those who are removed from what goes on inside Afghanistan – to apply this narrative to the higher-level talks and to suggest that the Taleban movement as a whole may be driven by anger over political marginalisation on a national level (which in turn would suggest that talks towards greater power-sharing could defuse much of the conflict). I believe there is little evidence to support this analysis.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020