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

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 1/5 |

The Necessity for Action: Afghan History Repeating Itself

After 35 years of war in Afghanistan1, the year 2014 brings two milestones capable of major impact on the future – for better or worse. Firstly, the presidential elections that took place in early April, so far reported to be relatively successful, and secondly the withdrawal of international combat forces planned for the end of the year.

In a conflict which sees strongly opposing positions and negotiations strained by heavy pre-conditions, this essay, following the Harvard Approach2, analyses the conflict parties’ underlying interests for a joint Afghanistan. The analysis is intended to provide an outline for the German Government and the Foreign Office on ways to approach the Taliban in dialogue on the political future of Afghanistan, including questions of political representation and the national security apparatus.

Map of Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan

Section 2 analyses the current state of the conflict and places the conflict and its parties in the broader historical context. It explains Afghanistan’s lack of strong central government, and why areas beyond Kabul have traditionally been under the authority of local strongmen or tribes, who fought each other unless external threats existed.3 We seek to evaluate whether the Taliban can be constructively involved instead of applying the ‘terrorist’ label.4 Labeling this prominent insurgency group as such pre-emptively excludes such actors rather than seeing them as potential agents of change that can play a constructive role in securing peace.5 Based on these analyses, section 3 drafts an intervention strategy, and looks at possible ways of constructively engaging the conflict parties. Finally, section 4 concludes by offering practical recommendations for the German government.

2. Context and Conflict Analysis: Afghanistan and the Taliban

For Afghanistan’s highly complex setting, at its height involving the military of 47 countries, comprehensive analytical tools are required. Bright suggests such tools by combining the ‘Wehr Conflict Mapping Guide’6 and Sandole’s ‘Three Pillar Approach’7. Bright’s ‘Conflict Mapping Chart’8 and its analytical tools aim to create a better understanding of common problems, underlying causes, parties’ positions and interest, and options and alternatives for a resolution based on past experiences and theoretical findings.

2.1. Conflict Parties

Following Bright it is important to analyse four types of parties and their relationships and power asymmetries.9 The relationship map (Appendix B) displays the result of a detailed analysis and visualizes parties’ power (relative size of circles), with regards to resources or “power currencies”10.

The most important primary conflict parties, the ones directly involved in the conflict11, are President Karzai’s Afghan government and the Taliban, led by Mullah Omar. However, one may not disregard other mujahidin factions, most importantly former Prime Minister Hekmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami and Sirajuddin Haqqani’s Haqqani network, which is considered closely linked to both al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s military.12 Any intervention giving preference to the Taliban risks strong opposition by other parties.13 Additionally, regional strongmen, so called ‘warlords’, have power to act as spoilers.14 Very different dynamics can be observed with regard to government relationships with the mujahidin factions. While there appears to be direct contact with Hizb-e-Islami leaders and increasingly successful inclusion in political positions15, no direct communication channels exist with the Taliban’s decision-making body, the Quetta Shura.

Regional warlords are the most controversial primary party and a threat to Afghan government and Taliban alike, who, with their rise to power in 1996, assassinated numerous warlords and their families.16 Warlords such as Ismael Khan in Herat hold considerable power, due to their income from criminal activity, aid from foreign states, customs duties and taxation of their population as provider of security and basic services17. Khan is described as earning between three and five million dollars per month in customs alone, which he refuses to share with the central government. He maintains a militia of some 20,000 fighters and while the U.S. consider him dangerous for selling information to Iran, which supported him against the Taliban18, he has been running girls’ schools and promoted industry. He, thereby, turned Herat into a safe and clean city in the 1990s, where children were educated, but no criticism was tolerated.19

Secondary parties, which are indirectly involved in the conflict while having “a high degree of interest in and influence over it”20, are the important neighbouring countries Pakistan and Iran. As Wikileaks proved21, Pakistan and its secret service ISI supported the Taliban’s creation and protection with the aim of ensuring a Pakistan-friendly and non-India-aligned government in Kabul.22 Iran, on the other hand, is threatened by Omar’s close relationship with Sunni-jihadist Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 and by an immense increase in Afghan heroin production inflicting societal damage on Tehran23. Given strong military involvement and the fact that many warlords were, or still are on the CIA payroll24, various analyses enlist the U.S. as a secondary (or even primary) party. Thus, the U.S. ought not to be a dominant mediator.25

Finally, other interested parties are described as having strong interests in the conflict and being biased regarding its resolution.26 These are regional actors including Saudi Arabia, India27, Russia, China and the northern neighbours Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but also the EU and its member states. These could have strong effects as intervening parties, on the basis of bilateral and multilateral partnership deals.28

Important differences exist between how parties like the Taliban are identified by external actors and how they identify themselves.29 Early-2000 analyses synonymised Al-Qaeda and Taliban, thereby excluding them from shaping Afghanistan’s future30. The Taliban themselves defend their sheltering of Osama bin Laden, because his extradition would have meant a serious violation of the Pashtun code requiring protection of any guest’s life.31 Sceptics hint at significant funding by central Al-Qaeda al Oum as a power currency sustaining the Taliban after 9/11 and enabling them to re-establish themselves in Afghanistan’s south-east.32

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