Taliban Talks: Negotiating With an Undisciplined Foe

The Taliban doesn’t have the ability to control itself, undermining any attempts at negotiation and reconciliation.

Taliban Talks: Negotiating With an Undisciplined Foe
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, a rare Taliban attack took place in the heart of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. 11 people died and several more were wounded. The Pakistani Taliban – Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) – were quick to deny responsibility in an attack that has all the hallmarks of Taliban tactics. The attack highlights a crucial problem for the Taliban as an institution and a fighting force, and one that will essentially ensure that any negotiations between it and a government are bound to fail: the Taliban lacks discipline and its leadership does not entirely control the forces that fight under its name.

The problem has persisted in Afghanistan as well. Even after the Afghan Taliban opened up an “embassy” in Doha, Qatar as part of the so-called Doha Process, attacks continued in Afghanistan. This was at a time that the Taliban’s institutional leaders were engaged in formal negotiations with the United States and the Afghan government for political reconciliation. One analyst noted shortly after the initiation of the talks that “not every commander and foot soldier of the Taliban militia is ready to accept negotiations with the U.S. or its allied Karzai regime, although this may change whenever the negotiations begin and more information trickles down the ranks of the Taliban.”

The Pakistani government is learning this lesson in its own way right now (although despite the Islamabad attack the Pakistani military has implemented a cease-fire on its airstrikes in North Waziristan, which began after talks between the government and the Taliban broke down on February 17). The Taliban are far from credible negotiators precisely because their leaders are unable to offer any interim guarantees that their attacks will stop.

The problem isn’t endemic to insurgent terror groups by any means. When one looks at insurgent groups like Colombia’s FARC, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, or even Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, the picture is significantly different. In general, these terror outfits have demonstrated the capacity to operate in a highly disciplined manner – warding off conventional state troops. Hezbollah, which repeatedly employs guerrilla and garden-variety terror tactics, has also shown that it can fight what amounts to a conventional war in 2006.

In comparison, even when one looks at the Taliban’s effort at mounting a full-on military assault on U.S. troops, the results are usually disastrous. The Taliban’s few successes in this regard were against Afghan security forces, but even that has changed as the Afghan National Army has grown better trained, better equipped, and more disciplined. The Taliban has most successfully employed guerrilla terror tactics and that continues to remain its source of leverage in approaching national governments.

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The benefits to military discipline aren’t merely tactical. The political advantages of being able to offer credible guarantees that attacks will stop should not be understated. Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments have decided to negotiate with the Taliban with an understanding that in the unlikely case that negotiations lead to a productive process, violence is likely to continue. As a result, public opinion and support for the talks will dwindle and progress will be remote. Until the Taliban can reel in its splinter forces and offer to uphold a credible cessation of violence, no real political progress is possible.