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

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 4/5 |

3. Conflict Intervention: Appropriate Roles for German Mediation

This section applies the previous section’s analyses, and outlines an intervention strategy for the German government and its Foreign Office. It evaluates whether the current situation allows for a mediation process, following the theoretical frame on conflict phases and ripeness96. Although it is dangerous to be seen as ‘talking to terrorists’ various authors have called it the “only way to exert meaningful influence over them”97 and warned of more severe risks of non-negotiation policies98. The UN’s abovementioned loosening of terrorism blacklisting suggests that the Taliban are able to progress from the ‘terrorist’ label. Nevertheless, the Taliban interests identified above constantly have to be verified against real-life observations to avoid empowering elements of “absolutist [terrorism] … not willing to enter into political discourse”99.

According to Glasl’s Conflict Escalation Model, escalation can be seen as a downward spiral, moving from levels of black-and-white thinking and loss of empathy to attacking the other party’s moral integrity and, finally, total confrontation. In the course of this, positions harden and parties, in addition to pursuing their goals, increasingly aim to hurt their opponent. Therefore, the potential for self-help decreases and mediation interventions may need to revert to increasingly forceful means.100 While, following from the previous analysis, the conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government is undoubtedly at a destructive level, the historical analysis shows that imposed solutions have not led to sustainable outcomes. Thus, a facilitative approach is suggested hereafter. The strategy aims at long-term improvement of relationships through facilitation of dialogue and trust-building measures rather than a short-term solution based on bargaining between the parties.

Germany has a long-standing relationship with Afghanistan (with the presence of aid workers as early as 1964101) and with the Taliban from the 1990s when the German Foreign Office received a Taliban delegation to discuss the country’s future.102 The first UN mediator for Afghanistan was German diplomat Norbert Holl.103 Germany was the first to talk to Taliban’s top negotiator and Mullah Omar confidant, Tayyeb Agha, and the U.S. have sought to use German channels to save the failing Qatar talks.104 German Special Representative for Relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan Michael Koch appointed in February 2002 maintains close relations with President Karzai to discuss e.g. the upcoming elections.105 Nevertheless, after 9/11 Germany backed the invasion of Afghanistan pledging “unconditional solidarity”106 with the U.S..

Currently, the U.S. rather than Germany or the EU hold the leading role in shaping Afghanistan’s future including the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), envisioned to be the basis for all NATO/ISAF troops post-2014. This grants Germany an ideal position, as it allows for backchannel talks with both government and Taliban representatives, with the aim of dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Furthermore, Germany has been a strong supporter of the UN system, which many analysts consider the appropriate way forward107, making it a credible actor of international cooperation. Moreover, Germany supervises the formation of Afghan National Police (ANP) forces on the basis of their 2002 reform plan and donated more than €10m and 50 police vehicles that year.108

The mediation strategy relies on facilitating dialogue to create deeper mutual understanding109 and confidence-building. It is based on German competence in decentralisation, police formation, enabling confidential talks110 between the Taliban and the U.S. or Afghan officials, and most of all on trust gained in 50 years of cooperation. By offering technical expertise, e.g. in the creation of federalist structures, Germany can further grow as a trusted partner. Since all analyses emphasize the need for an Afghan solution, such a complimentary role can add significant value.

The main goal is to improve communication and to ensure trust-building “to the point where people can reveal their own real needs and also understand and try to meet each other’s needs”111. This is intended to convince the Taliban that their concerns are acknowledged and their objectives are addressed, without them resorting to counter-productive violence.112 In the long run this is expected to foster interest in generating inclusive, participatory and comprehensive solutions.113

Following Zartman’s debate of ‘ripeness’, good timing of interventions is crucial. As the analysis has shown, the announced withdrawal of NATO forces puts the Taliban in the comfortable position of being able to wait for their opportunity to regain strength and there is little evidence of a potential ‘Mutually Hurting Stalemate’ (MHS) in the near future. Nevertheless, facilitating and moderating (secret) talks will enable Germany to develop an understanding of parties’ perceptions of MHS and to be present and seize the ripe moment as it occurs. Zartman adds potential moments of ‘Mutually Enticing Opportunities’ (MEO) which - following improved relations - enable parties to move towards settlement. While sceptical of examples of MEO in reality, Zartman stresses that these opportunities are vital throughout future negotiation processes to prevent parties from dropping out.114

The strategy entails concrete small-step confidence-building measures described in section ‎4.115 Given the serious miscommunications identified above and the necessity to involve complex decision-making structures, solutions will neither be easy nor quick. By keeping all talks secret, the parties have the opportunity to “back out gracefully ... and escape capitulation and charges of appeasement if the attempt fails”116. Only if agreement is reached on general principles and enough support has been generated, can negotiations be taken to a more public level. History has shown that the premature opening of political offices for transparent talks has disrupted rather than promoted progress. A key challenge herein will be to gain international support and prevent other actors from spoiling the process. To convince the U.S. and others a concerted approach within Europe and possibly the UN is necessary, however difficult this will be given the need for secrecy. In dealing with potential spoilers, rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran can be a valuable factor.

These tactics will only work if complimented with economic prospects, considering that in many regions drug-trafficking is seen as the only means to provide for one’s family. Germany’s development agency GIZ can be a strong tool as good governance, SSR and DDR is already addressed by its daughter-agency Ziviler Friedensdienst (ZFD).117 Following Lederach this multi-level involvement would enable Germany to engage in Track I, II and III diplomacy reaching government and local and religious leaders as well as the civil society.118

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