Reflecting on the Taliban
Mar 26th 2009 | KABUL
From The Economist print edition
Westerners are thinking about talking to the Taliban. It won’t be easy
IN A recent interview with the New York Times, President Barack Obama argued that “part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists but who were willing to work with us,” and suggested “there may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region.” Amid the various reviews of Western policy in Afghanistan now under way (see article), one theme has been constant: if a military solution to the insurgency is unlikely, it may be necessary to talk to the insurgents. But is that really possible? And are there “moderate” Taliban who would be willing to talk to the NATO-led alliance?
The answer to the second question is yes, although one would hardly call them moderates. It is true that, since 2001, the leadership of the Taliban based in Quetta, in Pakistan, has maintained links with al-Qaeda. The two organisations provide some military support to one another and many Taliban fighters express admiration for Osama bin Laden. However, there are startlingly few foreign fighters in Afghanistan, and the Taliban do not go out of their way to recruit them. As Zabiullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, told your correspondent, “all mujahideen who come to Afghanistan to fight have to accept the principles and rules and regulations of the Emirate. They can fight on the side of Taliban but they cannot give orders. They have to receive orders. None of the foreign fighters are allowed to be commanders.
What is not so clear is the answer to the first question: how does one go about engaging with the Taliban? So far, the Western aim has been to defeat them; little thought has been given to coming to terms with them. Taliban representatives were not invited to the Bonn conference of 2001, which was supposed to lay the foundations for an Afghan political settlement. (Many analysts have argued that that was a mistake.) Since then, other Afghans have used their positions in power to marginalise many who might otherwise have been brought into the political process. The result has been that whole sections of the populace in the Pushtun south feel alienated, a problem sometimes compounded by the clodhopping tactics of NATO-led forces.
A measure of the problem is the outcome of a formal programme of reconciliation set up under an Afghan government commission in 2005. Only 12 of 142 UN-listed Taliban leaders have sought reconciliation this way. Those who have come to terms, says Michael Semple, a Western analyst, have done so entirely through informal processes—using sponsors within the government or trusted ties of tribe and kinship.
There is some hope of change. The striking thing about the insurgency now is how decentralised it has become, especially compared with the ostensibly monolithic Taliban government that existed until 2001. The growing influence of local networks of commanders, such as the Haqqanis and various Pakistani Taliban groups, has undermined the ability of the Pakistan-based high command to control its own movement. Economic mayhem, which has increased insurgents’ earnings from drugs, banditry and kidnapping, has also freed them from the need to pay dues to the leadership in Quetta. That may make it somewhat easier to peel local Taliban away from the high command, using the informal contacts that have worked best so far.
However, something similar will be possible on a nationwide scale only if the insurgents give up their hopes of military victory and conclude that they cannot exhaust the West’s will to fight on. At the moment, they have not begun to think this way. Indeed, perversely but understandably, talk of engaging the Taliban encourages them to think they can outlast the West. That is why, for all the current rhetoric about talking to the Taliban, the most likely outcome in the short term is more hard fighting, led by expanding numbers of American forces and a larger Afghan army, before there is a successful attempt by NATO to engage parts of the Taliban in a real political process.