Foreign Policy Blogs

Negotiating with the Taliban: Obama and the “Reconcilables”

In an Air Force One interview session, President Obama opened the proverbial door to negotiating with the segments of the Taliban. He was vague about who the ‘Taliban’ was and how to go about it, but its definitely on his Afghan policy workbench. Though he offered few details, Obama was well aware that such a similar counterinsurgency method, with negotiations with former combatants a central component, utilized so successfully in Iraq, would not be easily transferable to the Hindu Kush region. He stated:

“The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge.”

Many other key figures in America’s campaign in Afghanistan are supportive of some type of reconciliation process with segments of the insurgency, including CentCom leader Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen, regional expert Reuben Brigety, and most British leaders. Petraeus has made it clear that ‘some deal’ with the Taliban would have to be ultimately made, further stating that ‘this was how you end these kinds of conflicts.’

However, no one has come up with the answers to these two crucial questions: Who exactly are the “reconcilables”? and Under what circumstances will they be willing to negotiate meaningfully?

It seems obvious that we need to find those insurgents who are just after material gain, as these desires can be met by other means than violence. Another major segment that can be fractured away from the Taliban’s grasp are those who feel that the insurgent group is the only one who can provide or take away their personal or tribal security. In other words, these people would readily leave the Taliban’s support system if a viable alternative was provided. We need to find those who are operating as Taliban elements because it is just ‘opportunistic’ and pry them away. They need to be given new opportunities.


Fred Kaplan of Slate poignantly argues that this can only be done if the US/NATO/Afghan government and military appear to be able to ‘win’. The so-called soft-core of the Taliban will fall in only if they can tangibly see that their is an alternative to Taliban rule and security. In this sense, the US/NATO/Afghan government should not negotiate with the insurgents until they are seen as ‘winning’, as otherwise the offer would be seen as just a sign of weakness. Of course, the difficult part of this policy is that the Taliban surely know this and will do whatever they can to make it appear that they are ones truly winning and they have shown the backbone to push, and push. However, though strong differences remain, the recent positive trends and stability in Iraq show that such a tide can change.