One of the biggest stories swirling around the London Conference on Afghanistan last month was the idea of talking to ‘moderate’ Taliban. What did you make of this?
I think there were two stories that came from the conference. One was the idea of buying moderate Taliban–trying to get them to leave the insurgency and join the mainstream in Afghanistan. But there was also a more important, deeper, story on the sidelines of the conference about talking to the leadership of the Taliban and starting to lay the groundwork for a political settlement between the Taliban leadership and the Kabul government.
So you have two stories. The official one, I think, offers only a limited analysis of the nature of the insurgency because basically you can’t buy your way out of it–you might be able to get a few of the field commanders, but you won’t be able to deal with the fundamental driving force, which is political. This insurgency is about a group that thinks its voice – the one of disgruntled Pashto communities – is not represented in the mainstream since 2001, and so they want a voice and they are trying to achieve that through violence. So I don’t think money is the answer to this problem.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This is why some experts from the Carnegie Endowment, including myself, are calling for a much more ambitious and political approach to the question of talking to the Taliban, and in fact doing what we should have done in 2001 at the Bonn conference, which is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and to start talking about what sort of Afghanistan we can we have together–what kind of political compromises are we ready to make on both sides and what kind of security guarantees can we give? Because if you look at the history, in the few negotiations that have taken place between the Taliban and the leadership in Kabul, such as in 2002 and 2003, they have basically failed because the Kabul government was not able to provide solid enough security guarantees to the Taliban that basically said: ‘If you return to your district, let’s say in southern Afghanistan, you won’t be shot at by anti-Taliban, non-Pashto groups. Or you won’t be captured by the US or international troops and sent to Bagram prison.’
There has to be a set of security guarantees. But the trigger has to be political. So, I don’t think the notion of moderate Taliban or the notion of buying moderate Taliban is particularly valid–I think it’s a typical construct of the Western community trying to come up with appealing sound bites. But when you know the reality on the ground, you know that this is basically a political insurgency, and that therefore you have to address the political engine. It’s not economic, it’s not about fighting against other tribes–fundamentally it’s a nationalist, fundamentalist movement.
How likely are Afghans to support such a comprehensive, political approach to the Taliban?
That’s a very good question, because I think probably the people that are most nervous about this idea about talking to the Taliban leadership and reaching some kind of political settlement are the Afghan people themselves. For some of them, especially in the cities–and there is a growing urban population–they don’t want a return to how things were before 2001. There’s certainly a lot of nervousness within this population and a feeling that they might get betrayed once more, or sold out at the political table.