On November 5, a panel of regional-Afghanistan policy experts discussed prospects for reconciliation with the Afghan insurgency and broader U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Center for American Progress. The event was the second in a series of events that CAP is cohosting with the New America Foundation to debate key aspects of the ongoing Afghanistan mission. Panelists included Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar in the South Asia Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Michael Semple, a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center on Human Rights; and Joanna Nathan, an independent consultant formerly with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. Caroline Wadhams, CAP Senior National Security Policy Analyst, moderated the event.
Wadhams explained that U.S., NATO, and Afghan policymakers have proposed political reconciliation with elements of the Taliban insurgency. One of the Obama administration’s main recommendations earlier this year was to integrate reconcilable insurgents—nonideologically committed members of the Taliban—in support of the Afghan government. She noted that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has also supported this strategy, making several public outreach efforts to members of the Taliban calling on them to cease their attacks against the government and join in the political process.
Wadhams said that reconciliation with the insurgency “seems, at least superficially, like a very attractive option,” and that many policymakers view reconciliation as a “way out” of a dangerous mission. However, the panelists agreed that immediate prospects for successful reconciliation may be unrealistic. The Taliban leadership has refused reconciliation offers and denied the existence of any distinction between moderate and ideologically driven Taliban members. The Taliban has also established as a precondition for talks the withdrawal of all foreign forces—something that Dorronsoro suggested would lead to renewed attacks aimed at toppling the government as soon as international troops withdrew.
Dorronsoro explained that “we’re facing a political movement, and the fight [against the Taliban] is feeding the movement.” He argued that reconciliation is not possible with the leadership of the Taliban because they currently believe they can win against the NATO coalition. He also did not believe that we could peel “moderate” Taliban away from the ideological Taliban, as many have proposed. He stated, “We have a major problem understanding the Taliban.”
The popular conception of the Taliban as a loose coalition of local groups is incorrect; the movement, he argued, is a larger, centralized structured organization with a strong and coherent political ideology, which makes it difficult to infiltrate. He continued that the Taliban are not “mercenaries” as often described, but “they are local guys, fighting for their world view… they have a very strong world view about what is a just, social order, what’s the place of the woman, what foreigners should and should not do in Afghanistan…”
Michael Semple, who worked closely with the Afghan government during his time with the European Union in Afghanistan, said that he believed reconciliation is possible with some networks within the broader Taliban organization, but that “out-of-the-box thinking” would be necessary to develop a “palatable” method. Semple also noted that many people who joined the Taliban gained a sense of status and respectability, and that these people would not be convinced to leave through monetary inducements. Rather, he argued many members of the Taliban would only leave the insurgency if they were given ideological and religious cover.
“All the talk of money and mercenary motives at the moment probably has not taken that into account … none of them would do the kind of things which would look like surrender,” he said. Semple suggested that some commanders “might be pragmatically very happy to cooperate with the government and with the United States, but in a way in which makes them look like true mujahedeen.”
Currently, Semple said, the international community and the Afghan government are pursuing different objectives in Afghanistan and until those differences are resolved, little progress will be made. He cautioned, furthermore, that a negotiation process that focused solely on the Taliban’s demand for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region and the American demand for an expulsion of Al Qaeda would not solve the underlying political problems in the country, which must be addressed to avoid an exacerbation of civil war or a broader regional conflict.
The widespread discussion of reconciliation by policymakers without clear parameters for implementation is dangerous, said panelist Joanna Nathan, as it risks undercutting current efforts to win the support of “fence sitters” if they believe the insurgents will be returned to power regardless. As members of the insurgency currently believe themselves to be enjoying momentum against the government, there is also little incentive on their part to step forward and give up power in order to join with Kabul.
Since the conflict began in 2001, she argued, there has not been a unified approach in determining who among the insurgents is to be targeted, who should be isolated, or who is reconcilable. “It really points to the lack of coherence in national and international strategy,” she said.
She also highlighted muddled vocabulary with “political strategies” encompassing a broad spectrum of potential efforts including strengthening institutions, ensuring more equitable representation and outreach to alienated communities along with broader regional engagement. Negotiations with the leadership are only a subset of this and not the place to start. It is appealing because it sounds quick and easy but it would not be if the goal is stability.
Semple suggested that while the insurgency was not capable of providing services to the people to the same degree as a movement such as Hamas, their ability to signal that they “dominate space” by arbitrating local disputes had seriously weakened the Afghan government’s authority in various parts of the country.
Nathan argued that while the Taliban provided a brutal form of justice, their political program was not popular with the Afghan people and said that “reconcilability” alone should not be the sole standard for bringing Taliban fighters into the political process. “At the very same time we talk about impunity being a major driver of the insurgency," Nathan warned, "we see people reaching out to elements of the Taliban with whether they are willing to reconcile or not being the only criteria, not what actions they may have done before.”
If the insurgency is to be halted, she said, much greater focus on the part of the international community and the Afghan government is needed on developing and strengthening Afghan institutions and mechanisms of justice so that the government can more effectively address grievances and allow legitimate outlets for protest and opposition.