The British government has thrown its backing behind an ambitious Afghan strategy to split the Taliban by securing the defection of senior members of the militant group and large numbers of their followers.Borger and Walsh's sources claim that the US government is divided on this:
The strategy, spearheaded by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, reflects a significant shift in British policy, and is showing initial signs of success. The Guardian has learned that members of the Taliban's leadership council have used go-betweens to negotiate their defection.
Such a shift has put Britain and the Karzai government at odds with hawks in Washington, who are wary of Whitehall's enthusiasm for talks with what they see as a monolithic terrorist group. But a British official said: "Some Americans are coming around to our way of seeing this."Those parts of the Taliban leadership closer to al-Qaida including Amir Mullah Muhammad 'Umar, have reportedly rejected such talks. But Walsh and Yousafzai report that a coalition of ten commanders in Helmand have forwarded demands for power sharing to the government of President Karzai. Of course, as opponents of negotiation always point out, these demands far exceed any possible agreement. In my experience of negotiations among parties to a conflict, however, it is relatively rare for one party to make public its final position as an opening gambit. That would be surrender, not negotiation.
A senior diplomatic source in Kabul confirmed the contact, but stressed it was one of multiple strands. "This is not shaping up to be a single dialogue with a core Taliban entity," he said. The source said many of the contacts were initiated by Taliban commanders themselves, dispirited by losses at the hands of Nato bombing campaign and worried about the loss of the sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan.
The Guardian confirms , as I previously argued here:
Nato and Taliban officials said a turning point in talks came after the Korean hostage crisis this summer in which two aid workers were killed but 21 were freed unharmed.Curiously, both right-wing and left-wing critics of U.S. policy are now speaking out against these talks, in the apparent hope that Afghans will continue to die fighting in an endless war to solve the whole world's problems. On the right, Ann Marlowe (whose relentlessly optimistic view of Afghanistan I previously compared with reality) writes in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post that President Karzai is "asking, indeed begging, the Taliban to negotiate with him." Apparently this is mainly the fault (surprise) of the US's weak-kneed allies, who negotiate with hostage takers.
After that, a Nato official said, "both sides had faith that talking could actually work".
Meanwhile, on the left:
"It is a complete misunderstanding of the local situation to believe that negotiating with violent extremists will result in peace," said Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group. "This will simply add more fuel to the conflict, not quell it."There are indeed dangers in these negotiations, but I wonder what scenario for ending the conflict the critics of negotiations have in mind? The Afghan insurgency, loosely affiliated to the Taliban, is not a marginal extremist organization that can be destroyed by force. It is a social movement (though not representing the majority) in the Pashtun areas of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It actually has more support in Pakistan. The Taliban's origin had nothing to do with al-Qaida, and, indeed, they were initially hostile to them. The Taliban-dominated Islamic Court of Qandahar issued a fatwa in 1988 stating that Wahhabis were not Muslims, placing takfir on the takfiris! I don't recommend this tactic to my Muslim friends, but it indicates that there were differences.
Today's Taliban are subjected to conflicting pressures. On the one hand, their Pakistan-based leadership has reaffirmed its ties to Al-Qaida. On the other hand, while the Taliban have continued to use extremely brutal tactics (including the hanging of a fifteen-year old for posessing US dollars), they have also adopted more to the modern world, recognizing Afghans' demands for education and lightening their past restrictions on media. Like the mujahidin field commanders of the 1980s, the Taliban field commanders are not fully obedient to their leadership in Pakistan. Furthermore, that leadership is finally coming under significant if still insufficient pressure, unlike the exiled mujahidin leadership of the 1980s.
One great danger is that the longer this conflict goes on, the more it becomes dominated by a new generation of young, radicalized, pro-Qaida Taliban. These new fighters belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan: they are products of refugee camps and militarized madrasas in the tribal areas of Pakistan. They have never experienced benefits of citizenship in any country, and they have never participated in any "traditional" society based on agricultural production, pastoralism, kinship relations, and state patronage. The longer the war goes on, the more the transnational milieu that creates this group becomes more deeply rooted in the region.
The relationship with al-Qaida deserves more attention. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, much of the Taliban showed solidarity with their Arab brothers and believed that they were falsely accused of an atrocity engineered by others. Former senior Taliban officials, however, have told me that since that time, as they have watched Bin Laden repeatedly claim credit for these attacks, they have concluded that he was in fact guilty, and that he had sacrificed the Taliban's Afghan goals for his global agenda. Some have chosen to embrace that global agenda, but others are seeking a way back to a national Islamic agenda. They recognize, so these former officials claim, that the US and the international community have legitimate demands that Afghanistan's territory not be used to attack them. This recognition, if it can be confirmed, can create space for negotiation.
The real dangers of negotiation are not those pointed out by its critics. Negotiation with insurgents could help bring stability and peace to Afghanistan if it brings former armed groups into the political system. But it will merely change the nature of instability if it is part of a realignment rather than a peace process.
This is the threat seen by the Northern Alliance, many other non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and India. They suspect that this effort is not part of a plan to bring peace to a more inclusive Afghanistan, but part of a plan to return Afghanistan to the hegemony of Pakistan and pro-Pakistan Pashtuns (if such exist, which I personally doubt), exclude northern ethnic groups from power, encircle Iran, and create a corridor of US-aligned states from South Asia through Central Asia. They see what appears to be a similar process in Iraq, where the US has turned against the Iranian-supported Shi'a groups it helped to power and aligned itself with militias of Saddam Hussain's Sunni supporters.
As long as these groups suspect that the negotiations have such goals, non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan will feel obliged to seek the protection of the Northern Alliance, the Northern Alliance will feel the need to seek the protection of Iran and Russia, and Iran and Russia will seek to assure that these negotiations do not succeed. The escalating rhetoric of conflict over Iran intensifies these dangers.