The price of peace with the Taliban

The prospect of a negotiated end to the war is increasingly tantalizing

I wrote earlier this summer about moves, in Afghanistan and in Western capitals, to negotiate with the Taliban an end to the war in Afghanistan. These efforts are continuing. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has admitted to contacts between his organization and the Americans — although he says discussions have been about exchanging prisoners rather than a political settlement. Credible reports suggest these have been much more substantial.

The prospect of a negotiated end to this war is tantalizing and becomes more so the longer it goes on. But proponents of a settlement need to ask, and answer, several questions about what such a process would entail.

1)   With whom would we make a deal?

There are at least three major insurgent organizations operating in Afghanistan today: the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura; the Pakistan-based Haqqani network; and partisans of the old mujahid, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who once bragged about helping Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in 2001. To this mix we should probably add Pakistan’s ISI spy agency, which continues to pull the strings controlling a large number thugs in Afghanistan; as well as assorted freelancing and semi-independent brigands. Striking a deal with one of these characters won’t deliver the others.

2)   Will any deal hold?

Jack Layton, one of the first politicians in Canada to advocate dealing with the Taliban, cited Pakistan’s peace talks with Taliban in that country as a model of what could be pursued in Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s experience was a disaster. The Taliban broke every deal they agreed to, using the resulting ceasefires to gather their forces and push closer toward Islamabad. The Pakistan government and military were eventually forced to confront them, but only after they had surrendered large swaths of Pakistani territory to women-hating decapitators. There’s little reason to believe Afghanistan’s Taliban are more trustworthy.

3)   What concessions will the Taliban and its allies demand? What concessions are we willing to make?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is already willing to make peace with insurgents who reject al-Qaeda, respect the Afghan constitution, and lay down their arms. This hasn’t been enough. What, exactly, do proponents of reconciliation suggest be put on the table? Are the rights of women negotiable? Are we willing to denounce education for girls? What about democracy? At the very least, the Taliban would want a share of power in Kabul. But they will not have attained this power by persuading people to support them, but through violence and terror. How could we then expect other Afghan faction to seek power using any other methods?

4)   What will such concessions mean to democratic and liberal Afghans?

After the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, after Western politicians made bold statements about not cutting and running, many brave and principled Afghans gambled that we meant it. Women such as Shukria Barakzai, who had run a secret school for girls in Kabul during the Taliban regime, came out from the shadows. She’s now a member of parliament, a walking embodiment of everything the Taliban oppose.

Barakzai and others like her made a choice they can’t undo. As Fawzia Koofi, another woman MP, said when I met with her in Kabul this spring: “We’re all afraid. Most of us are now public figures. We’re much more at risk. We’ve taken so much risk by making official public statements just to make reforms.”

Liberated Afghan women would perhaps be the most threatened should the Taliban return to some sort of power in Kabul. But they are hardly alone. Thousands of Afghans have bet everything on building a country that is different and better than the one ransacked by the Taliban, and the Taliban will expect them to pay for it.

5)   How will Afghans react to a deal?

This spring, Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, spoke to a rally of some 10,000 people opposed to deal making with the Taliban. Any concessions to the Taliban, he told me when I met with him shortly afterwards, will not bring peace. I asked him if civil war was possible.

“Whatever it will be will not be stability,” he said. “Respect our voice. Don’t push us to the streets.”

Fawzia Koofi said concessions could trigger renewed fighting. “Because these people will not be happy with Talibanization, they will go to civil war,” said Koofi. “They will go to the mountains to [fight for] their rights.”

In the event the Taliban do re-establish themselves in Kabul, those Afghans who go to the mountains will likely include those Afghans who most share our values and most desire our friendship. Then what will we do?