A Political Solution
to a Political Problem.
NATO, Afghanistan and the Taliban’s motivations to negotiateSarahh Irving
A political discourse with the Taliban has been advocated by many members of the international community as a way to end the War in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, the president of the Afghan state, has extended many gestures of reconciliation toward the Taliban and its members and has even personally assured the security of the Taliban ‘Leader of the Faithful,’ Mullah Muhammad Omar, if he were to return to Afghanistan and negotiate with the government. Foreign actors in Afghanistan have also been speaking of political settlements; Britain’s Brigadier General Mark Carleton-Smith has reportedly said that, “If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.” Unfortunately for those parties who are looking favourably upon open dialogue, not all actors have expressed their comfort with the idea. What is the likelihood that the Taliban, or NATO, will participate in this type of solution? Negotiating with the Taliban is becoming an increasingly desirable option as the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate in military effectiveness. These talks, if pursued, could be an important contemporary event leading to the success or failure of the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and could also create a powerful precedent for future counter-insurgency missions.
Section One: The Actors
There are many state and non-state actors who have a stake in the War in Afghanistan. To contextualize the central players in order to later discuss how they may react to political settlements, let us briefly discuss the origins and roles of the Taliban, the Afghan Government and NATO.Primary Actor One: The Taliban
The Taliban began as a popular movement in southern Afghanistan during the post-Soviet occupation era. The word “Taliban” comes from the root “Talib” which means ‘religious student’, these students were the base of the movement when it began in Kandahar in 1994. During October of that year, the Taliban was noticed by the international community for the first time when they protected a Pakistani government trade convoy to Turkmenistan from a group of attackers. From there they proceeded to take over Kandahar with very little resistance: the Taliban disarmed the population and restored a semblance of security and order. The Taliban took to arms in order to oppose the corruption of the seven mujahedin parties of the Afghan Interim Government, which were battling one another for power in Kabul. The Afghan Interim Government was formed from the ‘seven-party-alliance’ that had taken over after the Soviet backed ‘Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan’ government collapsed in 1992. This coalition of mujahedin forces was supported militarily by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during the Soviet occupation, and then was formed into a ‘government-in-waiting.’ The reason these nations supported this government was because “the international community (…) anticipated that the Soviet-backed government of President Najibullah would fall immediately after the Soviet withdrawal”.
The Taliban were said to have “felt outrage at the behaviour of the Mujahidin leaders fighting for power in the city and to have decided to take action to end what they saw as corrupt practices, drawing in Islam as a justification for their intervention”. The Taliban continued from Kandahar to take over the rest of the country, removing the Afghan Interim Government from power when they took the capital, Kabul, in 1996. By 1998, all of the country was under Taliban control, except a small section in the north occupied by the Northern Alliance. The formation of this coalition was another incident of Mujahedin forces coming together, despite their differences, to fight a common enemy: this time, not the Soviets but the Taliban.
After the events in the United States after Sept 11, 2001, the Taliban entered the media limelight once again as they refused President George W. Bush’s demand to ‘hand over’ Osama bin Laden. The United States invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 and allied with the Northern Alliance. Operation Enduring Freedom pushed the Taliban from Kabul, and then from their last stronghold in Kandahar in November, 2001. Currently the Taliban is being fought by the NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. They are viewed as rebel insurgents by the Western forces, and according to George W. Bush, “the United States of America is an enemy of those who aid terrorists and of the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name”.
Primary Actor Two: The Afghan Government
The current democratic government of Afghanistan was formed after the Taliban were removed from power in 2001, and after the adoption of a new constitution in 2003 democratic elections were finally held in 2004. Hamid Karzai was installed as head of the interim government by the USA, and then took the title of first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. He has since been re-elected, still holding this position today. Karzai and the international community have adopted a plan for development in the country called the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) initiative, which includes 3 pillars: 1. Security, 2. Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights, 3. Economic and Social Development.Primary Actor Three: NATO
NATO has been involved in Afghanistan since the summer of 2003, when it took over control of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) VI. This is the multinational force that was originally created by a United Nations Security Council Resolution in 2001, to stabilize the area in and around Kabul, and was expanded after NATO command took over to include all of Afghanistan. Since this time the ISAF has been “supported and led by NATO, and financed by the troop contributing nations. The Alliance is responsible for the command, coordination and planning of the force”. Their mission is one “that assists the Afghan authorities in extending and exercising its authority and influence across the country, creating the conditions for stabilization and reconstruction”. They are also responsible to provide a ‘Senior Civilian Representative,’ who advances NATO’s “political-military aspects” in Afghanistan, and who has ties with the ISAF, the Afghan government, international organizations, and neighbouring countries. They concentrate primarily on “a substantial programme of cooperation with Afghanistan, concentrating on defence reform, defence institution-building and the military aspects of security sector reform”.
Section Two: Who will participate in negotiations?
After outlining the different actors in Afghanistan, what parties involved are likely to participate, and why would it be in their interest to do so?Primary Actor One: The Taliban
The Taliban will likely talk to the international community because, most importantly, they are fighting toward a decidedly political goal: the formation of an Islamic State. Yet more specifically there are great challenges which face the Taliban, and thus there are many incentives to pursue this type of negotiation method. In their factionalized movement, the Taliban are unable to take control by military means alone. Additionally, bad infrastructure and mysterious chain of command will prove to be more than inhibiting. Lack of coordination between the different foot soldier ‘cells’ across the region means the Taliban will have great difficulty ever actually ‘defeating’ NATO militarily. In the end, the divided nature of the Taliban means that some may talk while others will only pursue military solutions.
Coordination issues pointing to the divided nature of the Taliban are evident because different ‘cells’ or regional groups of Taliban differ in their military plans or views on a particular issue. This issue has been apparent since the time of the Taliban government: one can see evidence in the differing policies enforced by different military commanders in the four major cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Marzar-i-Sharif and Herat. For example, women were permitted to work in the health sector in Kandahar, yet this policy was not accepted in Herat. Kabul was outstandingly oppressed in comparison: the city was seen as “corrupt and decadent” and as the country’s centre of Western influence. Current events have also lead to questions about the Taliban’s unity; when girls walking to school were sprayed with battery acid, it was largely suspected to be the work of the Taliban, yet a Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied Taliban involvement. The Taliban is not one homogenous group and cannot be boiled down to a single shared ideology, and the divisions are becoming even more evident to the public.
Chain of command can be regarded as another point of unease for the Taliban. Their ‘Leader of the Faithful’, Mullah Omar, is not present in Afghanistan but works somewhere in exile and has little contact with low-level Taliban soldiers. It is arguable that, indeed, these soldiers are faithful to him and the cause, but as ‘Talking with the Taliban’ revealed, some of the soldiers would accept an Islamic government in Afghanistan even if Mullah Omar was not the head of state. Thus, chain of command problems may serve as an incentive for some Taliban to talk to the international community. Foot soldiers will undoubtedly continue to fight despite the elusive leadership, lack of infrastructure, and issues with coordination, but Taliban leaders will likely see negotiations as a more viable option for achieving their bigger political goals.
Taliban foot soldiers may not oppose dialogue because many are aware of how ineffective non-negotiated military solutions lacking political reinforcement have been. After the siege of Kunduz in north Afghanistan by Coalition and Northern Alliance forces in late 2001, Taliban fighters were dictated terms by the military: they could lay down their arms and surrender, or be killed. It is estimated that eight thousand Taliban fighters surrendered their weapons, were tied up, and were taken as prisoners to Northern Alliance leader Dostum’s base and were eventually destined for Sheberghan prison. The prisoners were put into containers by the hundreds and shipped off to this location; due to suffocation and execution, only three thousand people made it to this prison alive. The dead and the wounded were directed into the desert for extermination and burial by US Special Forces. This incident has been exposed by a documentary in 2002 by Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran, in the film “Afghan Massacre – Convoy of Death”. Many Taliban, because of this atrocity, may know the real consequences of surrender and are much less likely to throw down their arms without real assurance that they will be able to return to their families. Thus, Taliban fighters may be more likely to seek strong political settlement rather than military conditions that make no credible promises. On top of this lack of trust of the military, the continued bombings of Afghanis by NATO forces will continue to be seen as a daily threat to civilians and Taliban alike, and will only be solved by an agreement like a politically negotiated ceasefire. This is why a political settlement would be favourable to the foot soldiers: they will be able to have real political protection against military persecution through negotiated agreements.
Pursuing a political solution instead of a military one is a much more appropriate solution to the political problem of how Afghanistan should be ruled. The problem is that, in the eyes of the Taliban, Afghanistan should be an Islamic state and should have an Islamic government that is not a puppet of non-Muslims (as Karzai is believed to be). So if there was a negotiation where this issue was on the agenda, it is far more likely that the Taliban – soldiers and leaders – would participate.
Finally, talks with the group would also, to a degree, legitimize the group as an official actor in the country. Seeing the faces of the fighters published in newspapers and their voices on the radio throughout communities in Afghanistan during the talks would ultimately be good exposure, something of which they may take advantage. Also, it would give them weight as a group abroad: they would be less a group of masked insurgents, far away down the scope of a machine gun, and seen more for the people that they really are: husbands, sons, and brothers, all with faces and names, all fighting for their religion and their country.
Primary Actor Two: The Afghan Government
The Afghan government will likely support the proposed talks with the Taliban because they have set a distinct precedent by encouraging the return of Taliban members to Afghanistan. In 2003, Karzai offered amnesty to Taliban foot soldiers and commanders, allowing them to disarm and return to daily life as citizens. “The commission did prove to have a positive effect as many Taliban commanders accepted the amnesty and joined the government”. This offer of amnesty was one of the government’s more effective strategies to overcome the civil unrest, because they do not have the resources, infrastructure, or policing abilities to properly handle an insurgency militarily. The police are chronically underfunded, uncoordinated and in some cases corrupt. “Improving the quality of policing remained the biggest challenge” for the Canadian forces, who “found some detachments and checkpoints led by corrupt officers and manned by drug addicts”.
In terms of resources and infrastructure, conditions are slow to improve. For example, the roads are insufficiently repaired, which impedes the development of the economy and prevents commerce from flourishing. This prevents the accumulation of wealth and slows increases in standards of living. If physical infrastructure does not improve more quickly, poppy will continue to be an essential crop, smuggling will continue across the porous borders, and black markets will perpetually be one of the only ways to do business in Afghanistan. Yet, as the Afghan government has discovered, reconstruction is a long process. If the government continues to struggle in providing infrastructure, conditions will permit economic activity to be pursued though the black market. This inevitably increases criminal activity and creates wide networks through which the Taliban can continue to hold power, gain resources and weapons, and continue fighting the insurgency. Without an increased ability to fight poverty through building of infrastructure, there will continue to be conditions for the Taliban to maintain its hold in many regions. President Karzai realizes quite openly his downfalls, saying “I have to do a million times better by the Afghan people”.
On top of governance issues, the civilian deaths associated with Western bombings and military operations have become unbearable for the civilians and the Afghan government. Karzai has called on the US president-elect Barack Obama to halt civilian causalities from airstrikes. “Our demand is that there will be no civilian casualties in Afghanistan. We cannot win the fight against terrorism with airstrikes,” Karzai said. “This is my first demand of the new president of the United States, to put an end to civilian casualties”. Karzai also speaks in this report of villagers complaining about NATO forces bombing a wedding in late October, effectively killing 37 Afghanis, none of whom were Taliban members. It can be guessed that Karzai is running out of excuses to give to the people of his country, and needs effective action on the side of his allies to change their tactics in the pursuit of security. Thus, it is very likely that the challenges faced by the Afghan government would provide incentives for fruitful discourse with the Taliban in hopes of finding real solutions to Afghanistan’s problems.
Primary Actor Three: NATO
NATO has recently finished Defense Minister meetings in Brussels and “the Military Committee confirmed that military operations alone will not provide a long-term answer to creating a secure and peaceful environment in Afghanistan, while only a comprehensive approach, involving all interested parties, will enable a successful outcome for the Afghan people”. The media has also reported that US General John Craddock, NATO’s supreme operational commander has said “he is open to talks with the Taliban as long as any peacemaking bid is led by the Afghan government, not Western forces”. Britain had earlier expressed similar sentiments through a few of its commanders, saying that the military progress that is possible is becoming increasingly costly to the lives of Afghanis and Western soldiers alike, considering this is the deadliest year yet for NATO forces in terms of casualties.
There are many reasons why NATO is allowing the Afghan Government to head talks with the Taliban: one of the main pillars of NATO’s mission is to “enable Afghanistan to provide security without the support of the ISAF”. This is why they focus so heavily on capacity building in governance, and want Afghan authorities to be able to deal, independently of NATO, with security issues.
Besides their officially stated mandate there are important incentives for NATO to enable political reconciliation. Decreasing support for the war, provoked by many reputation-shattering incidents, and increasing disillusionment in military tactics by Afghans and ISAF soldiers alike are big motivators for a change in tactics.
The very offensive displays of victory by Western troops have continued to embarrass the mission and articulate the often disregarded collateral damage done in the country. As Hekmat Karzai’s has outlined in his paragraph “Foreign Troops and Cultural Blunders: A Major Liability” it is through these types of incidents that the full impact of war is revealed, and the truth severely stains the reputation of the mission and NATO. When a journalist caught on videotape the scene of five US soldiers standing over a bonfire, with two dead Taliban bodies facing Mecca smoldering over it, this “raised countless complaints about the soldiers’ behavior, especially since Islamic belief prohibits cremation”. This type of incident gives Western soldiers a bad image, in the eyes of the Afghanis and abroad, and articulates a lack of knowledge, respect and authority in the mission. We can relate these shocking images to others the media has exposed in the past, namely those coming out of Somalia and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib. These types of injustice, coupled with uncoordinated bombings which have lead to increasing numbers of civilian casualties, are severely undermining efforts to ‘win hearts and minds.’ “Targets have been clinics, wedding parties, and groups of tribal elders traveling to attend official business. In addition, ‘US soldiers routinely conduct search operations without the permission of the village elders, and they further lose our goodwill.’ There have also been countless cases where male soldiers have entered houses and frisked women when relatives were not present”. After repeatedly dealing with these accidents, and other cultural mishaps, NATO has an interest in trying to keep a better image among the Afghani and global public.
To some degree, NATO commanders also know that they are not going to ‘win’ militarily, in a traditional sense, against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As they state in their ‘Afghanistan Briefing’ “security cannot be achieved by military means alone”. Why will they not ‘win’ this way? Well, it is no surprise to many that the Taliban can disappear into groups of regular citizens in towns and cities, making them invisible among the other Afghanis. This simply is because most Taliban fighters are regular Afghani citizens. This is why Community Development Councils have been elected to promote dialogue within communities, including with Taliban members. Through this outlet, “ISAF, aid agencies, PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] and battle group soldiers were, in effect, talking to the Taliban all the time in early 2007”. This tactic proved to be very effective, and often involved “hiring those young men, who a year before had conscripted into the Taliban insurgency to work on the various reconstruction projects”. This strategy of involvement is a promising one, especially considering the demographic challenge that faces the war. According to US terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, there is no shortage of Afghan youth, which means the Taliban keep coming back, fight after fight. “And they’ll keep coming back, he says. Not all young Muslims, of course, want to kill Westerners. But for at least another generation, likely two, the Taliban and other terrorist groups will have no problem replenishing their stock of young fighters, suicide bombers, explosives experts and logistical planners, virtually at will”. The demographic shift that has occurred across the Middle East stems from decreasing mortality rates and continually high birth rates, at three to seven children per woman. NATO forces have come to understand that Taliban fighters are willing to put their lives at stake for their cause and their country. With a large demographic base to work from, coupled with sophisticated recruiting campaigns by the new technology-embracing Taliban, a large strategic problem exists. In the Globe and Mail’s series ‘Talking with the Taliban’ this idea is succinctly expressed; many fighters described how their father, brother, uncle, or cousin, had already died as a martyr for Islam, and that they had joined the Taliban primarily to take their place. In total, negotiations with the Taliban can only help NATO’s image and mission in Afghanistan.
Many tensions remain between these three actors, most of which have not been covered in this essay. Negotiations are still likely to be inhibited by these differences of opinion, and there are many disincentives facing each party despite the weight of the positive forces outlined in this paper. It is difficult to know the true intentions of each actor outside of officially publicized material, in the case of NATO and the Afghan Government, and there is a lack of accurate information on the intentions of the new ‘insurgent’ group of Taliban. Also, cases of corruption in the Afghan Government, and the ‘politically correct’ reports sent out by NATO, need to be read critically and backed up with reports of their actions, to fully understand the intentions of each actor. Although each party will weigh out their interests, both those publicized and those drawn up ‘behind closed doors’, and come to an independent conclusion, there are many factors which are pushing each party toward political settlements. If these positive inclinations toward discourse prevail over the multitude of disincentives, then there is an opportunity at hand which could be fundamental in easing conflict in Afghanistan. Political discussions between these three parties may seem like an impossible event, but each party does have certain motivations for participation, lest the war on terror continue unabated for years to come.
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 Telegraph. “War in Afghanistan cannot be won, British commander Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith warns.” Telegraph Media Group Limited. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/onthefrontline/3139702/War-in-Afghanistan-cannot-be-won-British-commander-Brigadier-Mark-Carleton-Smith-warns.html (November 24, 2008).
 Hafizullah Emadi. Culture and Customs of Afghanistan. (Westport: Greenwood.) 48.
 Ibid. 36.
 Ibid. 43.
 Ibid. 54-5.
 Hafizullah Emadi. “Culture and Customs of Afghanistan.” 50.
 David J. Whittaker. The Terrorism Reader. (Routledge 2003.) 49.
 Hafizullah Emadi. “Culture and Customs of Afghanistan.” 50.
 ANDS, Afghanistan National Development Strategy. “Executive Summary.” http://www.ands.gov.af/ands/final_ands/src/final/ANDS%20Executive%20Summary_eng.pdf (2008.)
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 NATO c, North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Topics: International Security Assistance Force. “ISAF History.” http://www.nato.int/isaf/topics/history/index.html (November 24, 2008).
 Washington Post. “Acid attacks keep Afghan girls away from classes.” The Washington Post Company. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/14/AR2008111401180.html (November 24, 2008).
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 Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson. Kandahar Tour. (Mississauga: Wiley. 2008.) 135.
 NATO, North Atlantic Treaty Organization: International Military Staff, IMS News Release. “NATO Military Committee concludes two days of meetings in Brussels.” http://www.nato.int/ims/news/2008/n081121a-e.html (November 24, 2008).
 CBS News. “US may rethink talking to the Taliban.” CBS Interactive Inc. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/10/08/terror/main4511185.shtml (November 24, 2008).
 CTV. “NATO to consider talks with the Taliban?” CTV Globe Media http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20081008/nato_meeting_081008/20081008?hub=World (November 24, 2008).
 NATO a, North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Afghanistan Briefing. “Helping Secure Afghanistan’s Future.” http://www.nato.int/ebookshop/briefing/afghanistan/afghanistan2008-e.pdf (November 24, 2008).
 Hekmat Karzai. “Strengthening Security in Contemporary Afghanistan: Coping with the Taliban.” 71-2
 Ibid. 72.
 NATO a. “Helping Secure Afghanistan’s Future.”
 Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson. Kandahar Tour. 123.
 Ibid. 123.
 The Star, “Deep well of Taliban Fighters.” Toronto Star. http://www.thestar.com/comment/columnists/article/96001 (November 24, 2008).
 NATO b, North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO Review. “Afghanistan (Part One): the Issues.” http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2008/06/SUMMER_INT/EN/index.htm (November 24, 2008).