National Security

Taliban talks: A dangerous distraction for Afghanistan

Good intentions and clear political willingness to commit significant resources has meant that, waste and inefficiencies aside, the U.S. has been able to muster military and financial support for the war in Afghanistan from nearly 50 nations.  Recently, however, Afghan and Coalition allies, along with other influential regional power brokers such as India, are starting to publicly question U.S. policy in Afghanistan, particularly the decision to engage with and support the Taliban in opening a political office in Qatar.

For reasons discussed below, the dialogue between the Taliban and the U.S. should continue, quietly and with limited objectives.  But public, ill-choreographed, overly ambitious, and unrealistic attempts at reconciliation will continue to make the Doha peace process a dangerous and distracting sideshow that will hurt rather than support U.S. foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan.  

For some time, the U.S. has been coordinating with other stakeholders to jump start reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  Less than a month ago, that effort culminated in a rather embarrassing press conference for the opening -- according to the Taliban banner in the background -- of the political office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."  Afghan officials and many other governments, including the U.S., reacted harshly to what appeared to have been a serious miscalculation of the Taliban's intentions. 

To be fair, Secretary of State John Kerry quickly admitted that "the United States is very realistic about the difficulties in Afghanistan," and acknowledged that a final settlement "may be long in coming," emphasizing that if the new Taliban office in Qatar proved unproductive, he would push for its closure.  Similarly, the new Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, reiterated support for the Afghan-led reconciliation, admitting that the Taliban's consequential press conference "may have been a combination of misunderstanding and a desire for a certain propaganda victory, which I think turned out to be - from their standpoint - disappointing."  Placing such emphasis on reconciliation in the first place, however, was neither appropriate nor useful in achieving U.S. national objectives in Afghanistan and the region. 

In fact, the disastrous grand opening of the Taliban office represents the first time that the U.S. has yielded political initiative to the Taliban - even if fleetingly.   Or as the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel puts it, "instead of being treated as insurgents or terrorists, the Taliban got the symbols of statehood."

Furthermore, it has brought the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) negotiations to a halt.  No matter how well intentioned the U.S. administration was in its avid support of Afghan-led reconciliation efforts, its attempt to take such an active role in the process has backfired.  Many worry, however that President Karzai's emotional overreaction to the Taliban office will damage U.S.-Afghan relations even more than the U.S. attempts to restart the talks.  This is particularly concerning given the July 9 report that President Obama is keeping the "zero option" -- removing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 -- on the table.

Beyond the immediate negative impact, however, hurrying reconciliation or looking for quick fixes also increases the risk of potentially calamitous outcomes.  For example, continuing to support public engagement with the Taliban - who are in full ‘summer offensive' swing - while there is no national consensus for reconciliation, may lead to a spiral of violence and a fragmentation of the Afghan polity along ethnic, anti-Taliban, and fundamentalist lines.  From there, it is not too far-fetched to imagine a return of al-Qai'da to an ungoverned and insecure environment.

Equally dangerous, in the near term, is that the uncertainty is also encouraging former mujahedeen commanders to consider rearming fighters to guard against their sense of abandonment by the U.S.  These warlords, some of whom are still in the Afghan government, find it incredibly difficult to understand how the Americans, having sacrificed so much fighting the Taliban, are now bringing the insurgent group in from the cold. 

Also of concern is that many Afghans believe that the so-called Taliban representatives in Doha owe their allegiance and loyalty more to Pakistan than the senior Afghan Taliban leadership; thus, arguably, giving no guarantee that negotiations in Doha will have any positive impact in Afghanistan at all in terms of reduced violence.  Expectations in Kabul are that even if negotiations in Doha are wildly successful, rank and file Taliban in the field will not adhere to deals made there.  Furthermore, no matter how much some have tried to convince the Western audience that digging ditches on a development project for $15 a day will convert the "$10 a day Taliban" to the side of the Afghan government, the fighters are not just in it for the money. 

Furthermore, at least for now, the Taliban and the Afghan government are either incapable or unwilling to conduct substantive peace negotiations in Doha or anywhere else.  The Taliban do not recognize the Karzai government as legitimate, and the Afghan government, for its part, is in no position to offer a "deal" to the Taliban that is going to be supported by the majority of the opposition groups and, more importantly, the majority of the Afghan people.  As such, the U.S. should stop wasting effort and political capital on starting a process that is going nowhere for now, and should focus talks on limited and manageable objectives such as the near-term issue of prisoner exchanges and the mid-term objective of severing Pashtun tribal support to al-Qai'da and affiliated militants along the Af-Pak border.  Reconciliation prospects are, at best, a long-term process that the U.S. can support, but cannot lead.  It should not, particularly in its nascent stages, be taking center stage over other much more significant and meaningful issues.

This well-intentioned but ill-conceived meddling in Afghan reconciliation efforts has created a perhaps unfair -- but dangerously persistent -- perception that there is a convergence of interest between the U.S. and the Taliban, and a divergence of strategy between the U.S. and its allies.  Although the Obama administration is trying to quickly correct this misperception, the damage is done.  As the U.S. contemplates its next move, it needs to not only reconsider its position on Afghan reconciliation but also its relationship with the Afghan government - the other half of the reconciliation efforts.

In order to affect a real, sustainable, and positive outcome in Afghanistan, the U.S. is better off focusing less on reconciliation and, instead, reassessing and reaffirming its relationship with the Afghan government.  Reaching a conclusion in the negotiations over the BSA and declaring the size of the residual presence in Afghanistan post-2014 are two important issues the U.S. could start with. 

While achieving a peace deal in Afghanistan in time for the coalition withdrawal at the end of 2014 would be ideal, it is also highly unlikely. Instead of making attempts to entice both the Taliban and the Afghan government to substantive but rushed peace negotiations, the U.S. must refocus on providing solid, albeit conditional, aid and support to the Afghan government in return for progress, as outlined in numerous international community conferences.  Rather than focusing on what has turned out to be a reconciliation sideshow in Doha, the U.S. should focus its considerable resources on improving Afghan governance and strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces.

Holding the Afghan government accountable for the poor governance and corruption that undermine economic progress and deny future opportunities to Afghans struggling to find jobs in a business environment plagued by bribery, uncertainty, and predatory behavior are much more important to peace in Afghanistan than reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.  Coupling these challenges with the rampant narcotics production problem, the flight of many Afghan diplomats and other government officials  out of the country, and lost opportunities such as the failure to capitalize on vast economic opportunities in the mining sector, makes open negotiations with the Taliban in Doha a sideshow, not the real challenge for Afghanistan's future.

But, like it or not, the Taliban now have a political office in Doha. The international community's demand on the Taliban political office should be simple: ultimate reconciliation will be an issue decided by Afghans, but as long as the Taliban attempt, via violent means, to forge an Afghanistan similar to that which existed pre-9/11, the world will not accept them as a legitimate entity. The U.S. and its allies - including Afghanistan - should insist that with such legitimate public representation comes responsibility in full view of the international community.

Throughout history, even the most polarized enemies sought open channels of communications.  No one should consider dialogue between foes a bad thing; the key lies in identifying common ground in order to minimize violence and active fighting.  If the most charged discussions remain private, and public declarations are carefully choreographed, the chance of embarrassment is minimized. Afghans should always be the lead in discussions with the Taliban office in Doha, but without pressure from Western partners expecting miracles; at least not until after next year's Afghan presidential elections.

It will probably take a very long time to see an eventual positive outcome in Central Asia, or to dissect the failures responsible for not getting there.  However, efforts in Afghanistan don't have to end in disaster.  For things to improve, American foreign policy must find a way to remain well-intentioned but also imaginative, with strategic and inspirational vision, worthy of what most around the world consider the most powerful nation on earth.  

Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images