Michael Semple: Negotiating with the Taliban

Michael Semple spoke at Yale on February 22. A fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Semple is the author of the recent book Reconciliation in Afghanistan. From 2004-2007 he served as the deputy to the European Union special representative in Afghanistan, and previously has served as a political officer with the UN. He made headlines in 2007 when he was expelled from Afghanistan for traveling to a Taliban-controlled area. Semple is also the coauthor of a 2009 Foreign Affairs peice entitled Flipping the Taliban

Semple began his talk by noting that perceptions have shifted in West on the topic of reconciliation. From the stance of never negotiating with terrorists, we have begun to adjust to the idea that a lasting peace settlement has to include some form of talks.

Semple opened by showing two Taliban recruitment videos produced in Waziristan, one at the beginning of the insurgency, and one recently. The differences between the two showed the organization’a increasing sophistication and awareness of the value of propaganda. The videos are important because they show an attempt to appeal directly to young men, cutting out the traditional religious networks.

In 2002, it looked like the Taliban were gone for good. The ten violent clashes that occurred in Afghanistan that year were all internal struggles among militias – in fact, all the sides were on the payroll of the Afghan government. Where did the resurgence come from?

The new group of Taliban in Waziristan are different from the old regime of 1994-2001. Most of the those leaders fled Kandahar to Quetta. Their tribal links are different from the Waziristan Taliban, and while the new leaders claim allegiance to Mullah Omar, they have created their own networks, and operate autonomously. The Haqqani network, for example, has begun to expand beyond its tribal base in eastern Afghanistan. In the videos, they use “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as a brand, despite the original Taliban government being against video images.

Reintegration vs Reconciliation

The UN special representative Kai Eide announced a plan for reintegration of Taliban, recognizing the need to begin preparation for a political solution. The recent meeting in London produced the Reintegration Trust Fund. Semple argued that the problem with reintegration, rather than reconciliation, is that it only reaches those of the rank and file whose motivations were monetary. In his opinion, efforts must be made to reach the leadership, and the commited ideologues as well. He pointed out that the blank-check of the reintegration fund was what made it appeal to Kabul, not its potential efficacy in counter-insurgency. The program also risks the same outcome as the demobilization efforts that were launched in 2001. Those programs were declared a success, despite clear evidence that they were run as a racket, with the same person cycling through several times to get the money, and only turning in out-of-date weaponry.

What has to happen for reconciliation to move forward:

1. The process has to recognize the constitution and the gains made since 2001.

2. It must be lead by the Afghan government, not foreigners.

3. There must be concrete steps, such as prisoner exchanges, the Taliban beginning show respect for humanitarian workers, and perhaps a new Loya Jirga.

What both sides must realize is that reconciliation is not a zero sum game. The Taliban’s bottom line – the absence of foreign troops – is something we’d like ourselves. They may realize that they are more likely to talk the foreigners into withdrawal than to fight them, since the reason troops continue to be in Afghanistan is the Taliban themselves. In exchange for the bottom line, they have to recognize that they will not control the government. They will have more power, but some parts of the country have been empowered as their enemies and would never accept their control.

For the US, the bottom line is no support for international terrorism, and the Taliban must be able to offer some guarantees on this subject.

Belfast or Geneva

So far, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government are interested in the necessary steps. There are sections of the government that benefit from the status quo, and the Taliban, growing in military strength, see no incentive to negotiate. They believe that the war will end in an absolute declaration of victory similar to the Geneva treaty that ended the Soviet occupation. The alternative, a negotiated compromise like the Belfast accords in Northern Ireland, hasn’t really caught on. That strategy, an agreement that both sides can call a moral victory, is the incentive to negotiate.

To make progress, we must shift our interactions from intelligence-gathering to politics. We have to try to understand the internal structures of the Taliban. The old leaders are more likely to desire power and stability, while the new Waziristan based leadership is benefiting from the conflict and is less likely to back down. We must have Pakistan onboard as well, so that potential schisms between commanders can be used politically, rather than militarily. Semple acknowledged the recent example of the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar by Pakistan as an illustration of this difficulty. A member of the Popolzai tribe, like Hamid Karzai, Mullah Baradar may have been talking about negotiating with the government, but he nonetheless continued to actively lead the insurgency. The demands of the actual war won out over the potential of reconciliation.

In short, the political solution is possible, but certainly not inevitable. Without a concerted effort, the endgame will be a bloody stalemate where the US draws down its forces, but continues to prop up Kabul, and the Taliban control the countryside in an increasingly intense civil war. The US government is now caught in a trap, where to leave things to Kabul is to fail to make progress, while taking the process into our own hands would undermine the legitimacy of the solution.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum would like to thank Mr. Semple, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, the Council of South Asian Studies and everyone who attended.

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