Jaw Jaw Is Better than Wish Wish
Posted by Eric Martin
Ahmad Shuja has recently undertaken to hold an "e-jirga," whereby Shuja asks various Afghan professionals and students for their opinions on the wisdom of negotiating/reconciling with the Taliban. The early responses are worth reading, and one hopes that more such discussion will be forthcoming, as a negotiation/reconciliation strategy is at least worth pursuing if nothing else but to gain a glimpse at what an eventual peace agreement would look like in order to assess the wisdom of continuing with the current strategy, or opting for an alternative.
Of the three responses thus far posted, two can be characterized as opposed to such outreach, while one offers a qualified, and caveatted endorsement. The objections are entirely understandable, with appeals to human rights concerns and demands for justice for atrocities committed by Taliban forces when they held power (and since).
Indeed, one of the difficulties that policymakers face in trying to unwind this conflict is that the uncompromising position seems the more morally satisfying one: it is far more inspiring to talk of creating a peaceful, democratic, Afghanistan whose government is relatively free of corruption and which recognizes and respects the rights of its citizens. Who wants to argue for the inclusion of the Taliban, a group whose brutality, especially toward women, is well documented.
However noble such a mission might be, though, the past decade has taught us that such a transformation might be beyond our ability as an outside power, and might prove elusive still to the Afghan people given the myriad competing factions pushing divergent agendas - including many within Karzai's government whose own human rights records mirror those of the Taliban.
Our policy in Afghanistan must be guided first and foremost by what is achievable given real-world resource constraints, and the reality of the various Afghan players, not what would be the most morally and ethically appealing in an ideal world. Along those lines, this passages from Abdulhadi Hairan's response is telling:
So instead of wasting time [with negotiation] and pushing the country into deeper chaos, the government must think about something different, mainly containing election fraud, which President Karzai can start from himself, fighting corruption, which he can start from members of his own family and his top officials, and bringing war criminals to justice most of whom are his aides and close allies. The international community must do something to stop Pakistan’s support for terrorism.
There is little doubt that if the Afghan government, and international community, could achieve all of those things, there would be less need to negotiate with the Taliban. But that is an enormous, loaded, weighty "if."
Hairan calls on Karzai to, first, take action against his own past electoral fraud (or not repeat such fraud in the future?), a prospect whose odds approach zero. Next, Karzai is expected to take legal action, including imposing criminal sanctions, against members of his own family and the close allies upon whom he relies to maintain power, all in an effort to fight corruption and punish war crimes.
Again, expecting Karzai to undertake a process by which he undercuts his own power base is to misconstrue human nature in fundamental ways. Further, Hairan does not suggest where Karzai will be able to look for allies to replace those sacked and imprisoned, nor how Karzai will curry favor with a new set of prospective allies without the ability to dole out patronage goodies in a process that many would describe, with some level of accuracy, as corrupt.
Lastly, Hairan appeals to the international community to "do something" to stop Pakistan's support for the Taliban. Unfortunately, Pakistan has, rightly or wrongly, gauged that its vital interests are served by supporting the Taliban and opposing the consolidation of gains made by India in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
It is not clear what the international community could do, under what rubric, and incurring what costs, in order to change Pakistan's behavior, but what is clear is that the United States has been thus far unable to garner Pakistan's cooperation along these lines. The prospects for a change of course do not rate high, thus it is no surprise that the mechanism by which the international community is supposed to compel Pakistan to act directly against its perceived vital interests remains unidentified.
Hairan is almost certainly correct when he states that there would be little need to talk to the Taliban were corruption and electoral fraud eradicated, the justice system invigorated, criminals (including in Karzai's coterie) punished and Pakistan's support for the Taliban ended. However, given that such goals are almost certainly unattainable in any reasonable time period, for any reasonable price tag, there is little choice but to at least pursue what can be achieved through negotiation and reconciliation.