Talking to 'Terrorists': Facilitating Dialogue with the Afghan Taliban

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 3/5 |

2.4. Party Orientation

While the previous sections largely gave priority to historic facts, any intervention design requires an understanding of subjective perceptions of these facts and the conflict parties’ aims. These are not usually openly stated, which is why different tools exist to identify interests.64 The Positions-and-Interest tool (Appendix C), supporting this subsection, shows the immense importance of justice and an end to impunity for the Afghan population and esp. the Taliban.65

Moore’s ‘Circle of Conflict’ aims at simplifying the conflict and ‘reading between the lines’ to identify parties’ motivations.

Figure 2: Moore's Circle of Conflict66

Figure 2

The analysis shows that even after simplification along these five categories, motivations are difficult to clarify, given the Taliban’s secrecy and the multitude of powerful actors in and around the government. The implication of structure- and value-based conflict significantly impedes resolution.67 The findings call for improvements of communication to counteract negative stereotypes and to identify common interests. Due to little communication, government and Taliban representatives will look for actions in the other to confirm their perceptions; i.e. when government corruption or vote rigging became known, the Taliban continued to discard anything linked to ‘Western democracy’. On the other hand, Taliban suicide attacks reverse political progress, and harden terrorist-labelling.

The analysis reveals differing perceptions of time-pressure. While Karzai faces the U.S. deadline for the BSA-signing68 and the end of his presidency in 2014 due to constitutional restrictions69, the Taliban are in a comfortable position, given the on-going withdrawal of NATO forces. A mid-2000 analysis saw “historical parallels between the present security situation and that which existed immediately prior to the Taliban's ascent to power".70 Similarly to Karzai, many friends and beneficiaries face persecution and an uncertain future, given their hiring based on loyalty rather than competence.

The basic human needs identity, security and recognition are considered major and non-negotiable requirements, which demand satisfaction before violence stops. Psychologist Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’71 may be helpful in identifying individual needs within the Taliban and the broader population based on their current situation. Basic needs like food and safety are non-negotiable, and only when fulfilled, will aspirations for higher levels emerge.

Figure 3: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs72

Figure 3

2.5. Conflict Dynamics

In designing an intervention, Wilmot&Hocker and Sandole highlight three factors required to understand conflict dynamics: conflict styles, conflict events and action-reaction processes.

According to Bright, conflict styles, behaviour in response to conflict, are the “main determinant of party actions”73. While the behaviour of the Afghan government or Taliban is not easily predictable, given e.g. the secrecy involved in the latter’s Quetta Shura decision-making council, reactions to past events can reveal conflict styles. They are mapped along ‘concern for self’ and ‘concern for other’.

Figure 4: Conflict Styles74

Figure 4

President Karzai, himself a Pashtun, has reached out to many former and current ‘terrorist’ elements and displayed a compromising75 style. Since July 2010, the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) led by the High Peace Council (HPC) approaches individuals in efforts to disengage76 them from violence, providing immunities and a three-month stipend to enable reintroduction into law-abiding life.77 However, the APRP is often criticized for neglecting the victims’ call for justice and the 3,000 beneficiaries largely consist of northerners and non-Pashtuns.78 Reaching out to low- and mid-level Taliban in largely Taliban-controlled territories remains difficult since they face serious threats to their own and their family’s lives. The over-representation of Panjshiri Tajiks in the government, the military and the police force and the inability to increase Pashtun involvement constitutes another major problem.79 Much credibility was lost when Afghan security was unable to prevent HPC-leader Rabbani’s assassination80 and after revelations that the government had negotiated with a Taliban impostor.81 Nevertheless, efforts at reconciliation, including the release of senior Taliban Mullah Abdul-Ghani Baradar, seem genuine.82

The Taliban, on the other hand, are largely described as having a competing83 and un-compromising stance. Despite steps such as opening a political office in Qatar84 and secret meetings with U.S. representatives in Germany85, the Taliban’s ‘concern for other’ appears to be low. Many principles (often based on religious understanding) are non-negotiable, and continuing suicide attacks harm prospects of peace talks.86

Such events can create action-reaction dynamics wherein reactions are stronger than the initial action, leading to escalation and a conflict spiral.87 Responsibility for escalation is then easily blamed on the reacting party, while the initial aggressor justifies his attack by stressing the malevolence of the other, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies.88 Critically analysing such events holds promise in predicting future actions.

2.6. Legal Restrictions

Before designing an intervention, it is vital to understand legal implications and prevailing limitations. In addition to hard international laws, such as laws restricting communication with organisations and individuals on ‘terrorism blacklists’, soft mechanisms agreed upon at previous international conferences need to be considered.

Various authors discuss the acceptability of negotiating with terrorists and nuances within the terrorist label.89 Zartman emphasizes that “officially the subject does not exist: we do not negotiate with terrorists”90; not necessarily because terrorists are not interested, but because “the world does not accept their deal”91.

In concrete terms, the UN sanction list is the guiding tool regarding the legality of talks. Some members of the Taliban’s Qatar office, for example, are under UN sanctions92, restricting their ability to travel and suspending international bank accounts. Interestingly, none of the national terrorist blacklists of the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada or the EU enlist the Taliban.93 The strongest opposition comes from Russia, which lists them as terrorists due to their fighting against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and due to suspected links to Chechen fighters.94

Since any intervention strategy has to consider peace deals of the past, and evaluate what made them succeed or fail95, an extensive overview was compiled (Appendix D).

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