TALKING TO THE TALIBAN? A RESPONSE TO ANATOL LIEVEN
"To judge by discussions I had with figures close to the Afghan Taliban in Dubai last week, on certain key issues the Taliban leadership and the US administration are far closer than most analysts believe. The chief obstacle to a peace settlement is likely to come not from Taliban links to al-Qaeda but rather from the question of how to divide up power within Afghanistan. My colleagues and I spoke with four people: two former members of the Taliban government (one of them a founder member of the movement), a senior former Mujahedin commander with close ties to the Taliban, and a non-official Afghan mediator with the Taliban. All emphasised the realism of the Taliban leadership, born of their experiences of the past decade, and their willingness to break with al-Qaeda and exclude it and other international terrorist groups from areas under their control.... However, all our interviewees emphasised that the Taliban would only agree to this as part of an overall peace settlement and that they “will never accept anything that looks like surrender”. They also all said the Taliban would be willing to commit to continuing existing health and education programmes, including for women, as long as separation of men and women was guaranteed. This new pragmatism includes acceptance of the present Afghan constitution. All our interlocutors said the Taliban had no serious problem with the constitution as such – but would never agree to it as a precondition of talks, as hitherto demanded by Washington. They expect the constitution to be debated and approved as part of a national debate including themselves. All this is very encouraging. However, it reflects something else, which is essential for a settlement, but much more problematic. The Taliban like the present, highly centralised constitution because they want a strong central government in which they will play a leading part. They do not expect this to be an exclusive part. Three interviewees said the Taliban knew they could not govern without other forces’ participation, and that government must include educated technocrats. They want a strong national army – even one trained by the US – to hold Afghanistan together, prevent a return to warlord rule and deter interference by neighbours. But with whom would the Taliban be willing to share power? Our interviewees said that the Taliban recognised the need to guarantee a share of power to other groups from the existing regime, but were vague on which those groups might be. All said that particular “very corrupt and brutal people” would be utterly unacceptable, but that others, less compromised, could take part. Above all, they stressed the Taliban will never accept Hamid Karzai as a legitimate interlocutor, or participate in a grand national assembly or national elections while he is president. They fear – with good reason, given his record – that he would rig these processes. So this apparent new pragmatism leaves two huge questions open. The first is whether the Taliban could possibly agree to the US using bases in Afghanistan to continue drone attacks and raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such an agreement would outrage many Pashtuns and give Pakistan a strong motive to wreck any peace settlement through its allies in the Haqqani network; while our interviewees stressed the Taliban’s obedience to Mullah Omar and his comrades, they were studiously evasive about the Haqqanis. The second question is whether, or how, Washington could agree to force its existing Afghan allies to accept a deal with the Taliban that would exclude many of them from power. Would a promise of luxurious retirement to the US or the Gulf be enough to persuade them?... So there seems real room for agreement on a caretaker government of neutral figures to supervise constitutional discussions leading to elections. But with the next elections due in 2014, there is not much time to lose. As soon as the US presidential elections are over, Washington should do its best to open substantial talks with the Taliban and find out whether what we heard in Dubai really does represent their position and can be the basis for peace".Anatol Lieven, "Lessons from my talks with the Taliban". The Financial Times. 25 July 2012, in www.ft.com.
"Therefore the Vietnamese style of communication was indirect and, by American standards, devious or baffling. Because the United States had become great by assimilating men and women of different cultures and beliefs, we had developed an ethic of tolerance; having little experience with unbridgeable schisms, our mode of settling conflicts was to seek a solution somewhere between the contending positions. But to the Vietnamese this meant that we were not serious about what we put forward and that we treated them as frivolous. They had not fought forty years to achieve a compromise. The Vietnamese method of communications was opaque, designed to keep open as many options as possible and to undermine our domestic position....But the fundamental problem went deeper still. The North Vietnamese considered themselves in a life-and-death struggle: they did not treat negotiations as an enterprise separate from the struggle; they were a form of it. To them the Paris talks were not a device for a settlement but an instrument of political warfare. They were a weapon to exhaust us psychologically, to split us from our South Vietnamese ally, to do divide our public opinion through vague hints of solutions just out of reach."Henry A. Kissinger. The White House Years. (1979), pp. 259-260. On the face of it, the talks that Anatol Lieven had with the Taliban recently, which he writes about in last weeks Financial Times, should be regarded as 'good news'. In fact the matter is infinitely more complicated. As the example of the negotiations to end the American involvement in the Vietnam War shows us, by definition the Taliban protestations that they are willing to live under the Western-style constitution that Afghanistan now has and that per se, they are not opposed to the American presence in the country should all be taken with cum grano salis. At the very least, all such professions should be examined closely for any ulterior motives present. For example, in the case of the Taliban and the composition of a future government, it would appear from Lieven's remarks that the Taliban reserve the right to veto any groups of individuals who they might object to based upon some rather vague if indeed nonsensical criterion (id est., since when did the Taliban ever care, if a given individual or group was 'corrupt' or indeed 'brutal'?). Simply viewing the matter objectively it would appear that the Taliban would like to have power, pretty much handed to them on a plate by the Americans and their allies. That those elements in the current regime in Kabul (sans President Karzai that is), who are from the former 'Northern Alliance', AKA, non-Pashtun Afghans, would be frozen out of power and isolated politically, as a preliminary to being neutralized if not destroyed entirely by the Taliban and their allies in a reconstituted regime. Once, that state of affairs has come about and any and all non-Taliban elements have been crushed afoot, previous pour parlers given to the Amerians and their allies, can be quite easily ignored or studiously withdrawn as no longer valid in what they will no doubt proclaim are 'the changed circumstances'. Au fond, the Taliban will, if the West allows them the means to do so, employ what Mussolini one referred to as 'salami tactics', or divide et impera. I see much to interest the Taliban in such a situation, as at present they are still unable to score a military victory over the Karzai government and its Western backers. I see very little to interest either the West or any of the elements in the current regime or its supporters among the majority (fifty-five percent or so of the population) non-Pashtun element in the country. One is tempted to wonder why someone of Anatol Lieven's ilk would think otherwise?