Foreign Policy Blogs

Why Talks With The Taliban Will Fail

The effort to reach a political accommodation with the Taliban is underway.  Unfortunately, though, signs indicate that the endeavor will fail.  We can learn some valuable lessons from the Soviet effort of the 1908’s.  In 1987, Soviet Colonel Dmitry Timofeevich Yazov wrote a letter to the USSR’s Defense Minister criticizing, among other things, Afghanistan’s “national reconciliation” effort (you can download the letter here).  Yazov enumerated seven factors that led to the failure of the national reconciliation effort, and many of them apply to the current situation.

1. The masses didn’t support national reconciliation because they didn’t support the central government.  Similarly, today, according to a Pentagon report released earlier this year, the majority of Afghanistan’s population is either neutral toward or supports the insurgency.

2. No decisive actions were taken. It’s too early to tell whether this point applies, as the current reconciliation effort is merely months old, if we consider as its official beginning Karzai’s peace jirga last June.  However, it seems likely that Karzai is not actually taking the steps necessary to make progress.  As Caroline Wadhams of Afpak wrote earlier this year, “The plan avoids tackling the political grievances that drive the insurgency… This flies in the face of numerous assessments of the insurgency that indicate that fighters join the insurgency for more complex reasons than job opportunities.  Many have joined due to their anger with the Afghan government, which they perceive as corrupt, illegitimate, and predatory.”

3. National reconciliation was not widely supported by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the state, and the army. It’s not easy to determine the spectrum of support for Karzai’s negotiation effort, but, according to The New York Times, the 70-member peace council he established to lead the endeavor mostly represents a relatively narrow portion of Afghan politicians: “While a handful of influential people from the former Taliban government have been included, the council is heavily weighted with many of the same factional leaders who have dominated the wars and politics of the past 30 years, and who have been fighting the Taliban for half that time.”

4. Other political parties didn’t support national reconciliation either. Abdullah Abdullah, who has vowed to form a credible opposiiton party to Karzai, boycotted the peace jirga and is now critical of the negotiation effort.  He said in September, “The Afghan people have raised many questions about peace talks… What kind of peace is this and with whom are we trying to reconcile?  What does the government want?  Karzai’s government discloses less than what it does behind the screen.  People do not know the facts.”

5. The insurgents, or counter-revolutionaries, did not support the effort.  They were “aware of the strategic decision of the Soviet leadership to withdraw the Soviet troops” and would  “not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all.” The Taliban does not even acknowledge that peace talks are underway and have called Karzai and NATO’s claims about talks “baseless propaganda.”  They criticized the peace jirga, saying that it “is meant to confuse the minds of the masses and throw dust into the eyes of the people” and “will provide yet another pretext for America to continue the war in Afghanistan, rather than bringing about peace in the country.”  The Taliban’s stance now, according to a recent statement, is that negotiating “in conditions of foreign military presence in Afghanistan, is a waste of time” and “gives legitimacy to the current [military] occupation of Afghanistan.”  In other words, the Taliban’s precondition for negotiations is ISAF’s withdrawal.

6. A coalition government was not feasible. Probably true today, for the reasons stated in point 5.

7. The national reconciliation effort had a bad effect on the armed forces – desertions increased while morale and confidence plummeted. Yazov doesn’t really explain the causal relationship between these factors, and I’m not sure such a relationship could be accurately made today, at least not yet, but certainly the current Afghan army suffers from the same problems.  The attrition rate is high, as is drug use, while morale and discipline are low.

So it looks like the effort to engage the Taliban in negotiations might just be another area in which the U.S. repeats the Soviets’ errors.