Diplomat Lends Credence to Talks With Taliban
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/12/lakhdar-brahimi-nato.jpgLakhdar Brahimi (NATO.int)One of the world's most distinguished diplomats lent support to the emerging idea that Afghanistan's government needs to negotiate with Taliban insurgents to bring peace to the South Asian country.
One of the world’s most distinguished diplomats lent support to the emerging idea that Afghanistan’s government needs to negotiate with Taliban insurgents to bring peace to the South Asian country.
“We have to ask [ourselves?] what to do with them,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who served as the United Nation’s chief envoy to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2004, referring to the Taliban, outside Washington’s Brookings Institution think tank on Thursday morning. “They are not to be wished away.”
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Now a special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Brahimi spoke outside the non-profit Brookings Institution in Washington on Thursday morning — there was a brief evacuation due to a tripped fire alarm — where he and several other experts discussed the international community’s declining fortunes in Afghanistan and the region. He was circumspect on lending his personal support for such negotiations — “It’s not a matter of whether I support or not support,” he said — but made clear that not talking to the insurgency would mean the international community would have “to accept the consequences.”
“Fight the Taliban, that’s fine,” he continued, “but accept the consequences of that.”
Over the past 18 months, the Taliban and its insurgent allies have increased violence in Afghanistan to the greatest degree since the U.S-led invasion in 2001. Attacks by suicide bombing, unheard of in Afghanistan as recently as 2003, reached a peak of 140 countrywide in 2007. This year, monthly U.S. casualty fatalities have frequently been greater in Afghanistan than in the Iraq war that has overshadowed it.
At the Brookings forum, Brahimi recounted what he described as the history of the international community’s mistakes in Afghanistan while he was a U.N. troubleshooter. One of his leading examples was the exclusion of the Taliban from the Dec. 2001 Bonn conference that codified political and economic support for a post-Taliban regime. “It was not sufficiently representative,” Brahimi said. “The fact that the Taliban was not there meant that the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group [in Afghanistan], were not represented in Bonn.”
Increasingly, U.S. military officials, particularly those who focus on counterinsurgency, are entertaining the prospect of negotiating with elements of the Afghan insurgency. In October, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, openly embraced potential reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai. Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan, has been less enthusiastic about outreach to the Taliban, but has shown an openness to embracing what he termed “small-T” Taliban forces — those who do not fight for implacable ideological reasons — as a way of fracturing the insurgency.
Other important members of the counterinsurgency are more skeptical. On the Small Wars Journal blog, former deputy assistant secretary of defense Joseph Collins argued that no outreach effort to the Taliban could succeed without first dealing the insurgency significant military setbacks. David Kilcullen, a former aide to Petraeus and to Condoleezza Rice, sounded similar notes in an interview with The New Yorker’s George Packer, though he also advocated searching for ways to cleave the population from insurgent or insurgent-sympathetic elements.
Ashraf Ghani, the finance minister of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004 and now a Brookings fellow, didn’t say anything about negotiating with the Taliban during the Brookings forum. But he embraced the idea that there is no military solution to end the insurgency. “It’s 80 percent political and 20 percent military,” Ghani said. Ghani urged the international community to more fully recognize “the thirst for law and order” among war-weary Afghans.
“There is no strategy for Afghanistan,” he lamented, “and the international community actively undermined our reforms.”
A policy memo presented by Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown to the Obama transition, released Thursday, explicitly rejected negotiating with the Taliban. “[S]trategic negotiations with the Taliban hold little promise of success,” Felbab-Brown contends in the memo. “Although a mechanism for demobilizing individual fighters and small splinter groups would be highly beneficial, the Taliban leadership has repeatedly shown a lack of interest in any outcome short of NATO withdrawal.”
There was more consensus around rejecting what appears to be an emerging proposal by the U.S. military and Hamid Karzai’s government to arm Afghan tribesmen in the model of Iraq’s tribal revolt against Al Qaeda. “Don’t ask what is an Arbakai, you won’t understand it,” Ghani warned, using the term for a village militia. Felbab-Brown agreed, pointing to the Afghan people’s desire to disarm local militias and warlords. “Are we going to undermine [that] by once again arming local groups?” she asked.
Brahimi said the current baleful state of Afghanistan boiled down to the insufficient number of western troops and the lack of inclusion of the Taliban in the Karzai era. He said he was “absolutely certain” that if the U.S. and NATO had deployed additional troops years ago “and reached out to the Taliban, we would not have these problems.”
There will be an infusion of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan following the inauguration of President-elect Obama, who pledged for two years on the campaign trail to bolster U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Whether there will be an outreach effort to the Taliban beyond the preliminary talks that Karzai has begun remains to be seen.