Paul Pillar

The Rough Road to Negotiations in Afghanistan

The case of the impostor Taliban negotiator might suggest that negotiations as a way to conclude the war in Afghanistan are unwise, untimely, unfeasible, or a joke. They are none of those. The incident does serve as a reminder of several truths about any peace talks to settle the Afghan War. The first is that talks will be complicated and messy, largely because the Afghan civil war is a multidimensional conflict with numerous players, and with those labeled as Taliban being far from a unified movement. A second is that the negotiations that will matter most will be Afghan-to-Afghan, with it best left to the Afghans to identify the important players. (Afghan officials are saying it was the British who got duped by the impostor.) Another is that the most productive talks are ones we are unlikely to be hearing about because they are secret. This war will not be settled in a grand peace conference over a long, baize-covered table at which Mullah Omar sits at the center of one side and Richard Holbrooke is opposite him on the other side (but wouldn't that be a scene worth watching if it were ever to take place?).

An incorrect inference is that negotiations are untimely and that Taliban leaders who really do control troops are probably unwilling to negotiate seriously. The often heard notion that the Taliban need to be softened up through more NATO-inflicted military punishment before they would be willing to negotiate seriously is a fallacy. It fails to recognize that in any bargaining relationship, what is advantageous to one side tends to be disadvantageous to the other, and that goes for the timing of peace talks. Just as we would be disinclined to negotiate when military trends were unfavorable to us, so too would the Taliban if the trends were unfavorable to them. Historically, a belligerent's willingness to enter peace negotiations has followed an improvement in the same belligerent's military prospects at least as often as it has followed military setbacks.

2010 is not 1994. The Taliban have no chance of surging to power over most of Afghanistan if they discard the possibility of talks. This is true with NATO forces present. It also would be true with NATO forces withdrawn, especially since this also would mean the withdrawal of one of the Taliban's best recruitment tools, which is resistance to foreign military occupation. The Taliban can see attractions in negotiating now even if this would leave them far short of the position they once enjoyed. Not least among those attractions would be getting out from under the thumb of the Pakistanis.

The divergent interests of warring parties in settling on the most advantageous time to begin negotiating is one of the basic reasons peace talks have often, in a wide variety of wars, been difficult to get under way. The most propitious time for both sides to be willing to talk is when the military situation has become what I. William Zartman, one of the leading scholars on the subject, calls a “hurting stalemate”. The current situation on the ground in Afghanistan doesn't really qualify as a stalemate, but the war is hurting all sides. And the current balance between the Taliban continuing to gain strength and spread its area of operations while the surge-augmented NATO forces intensify their operations in the portions of the country where they have concentrated may be as close to a stalemate as we are going to get.

Besides the strategic contest over timing of negotiations, several other barriers historically impede the initiation of peace talks and require inventive tactics by both sides. There nearly always is a reluctance to make the first move, lest this be seen as a sign of weakness. The reluctance exists regardless of the situation on the battlefield. When Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the allied commander, met German negotiators in a railroad car to conclude the World War I armistice on the western front, he said, “What brings these gentlemen here? What do you wish of me?” When the Germans said they awaited proposals for an armistice, Foch replied that he had no proposals to make. It was only after the Germans said they sought an armistice that Foch presented the allied demands.

The fear of showing weakness and the need to maintain morale and a fighting spirit in the ranks also lead both sides to exude belligerence, to exaggerate the issues at stake, and in general to make it sound as if there is little if any room for negotiation. Sometimes one or both sides will insist on tough conditions that make it look as if a negotiated peace is out of the question. But once talks begin, even if they ostensibly are only talks about the conditions for talks, the talking has a way of continuing and spreading to other issues.