Talks between the United States and the Taliban are overdue by many years.
On the U.S. side, it has long been recognized that the Pashtun conservative groups that the Taliban represent cannot be destroyed militarily, and therefore will have to be accommodated politically at some stage and in some form.
At least some of the Taliban also realize that the strength of the forces opposing them means they too will sooner or later have to reach a political accommodation with other groups. One of the first goals of the planned talks must be to test how far this perception is shared by Mullah Muhammad Omar and the top military leadership of the Taliban.
According to a survey published earlier this year by the Asia Foundation, the Taliban enjoy the sympathy of around 30 percent of Afghans. Interestingly enough, that is also the estimate of Taliban intermediaries whom colleagues and I met in the Gulf last year, and of Pakistani analysts. This figure seems plausible, as it would represent around two thirds of the Pashtun ethnicity in Afghanistan, from which the Taliban is overwhelmingly drawn.
Realistic Taliban know that this support is not enough for them to conquer and rule unilaterally. On the other hand, it gives them a very powerful role in any political order established by a negotiated settlement. Such a settlement will, however, require compromise and power sharing with other groups.
These groups represent the non- Pashtun ethnicities of the country. These Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbek and other forces used to be grouped in the so- called Northern Alliance, and today provide the key support for the Afghan state established by the United States and its allies after 2001.
One of the most encouraging signs for the future of Afghanistan is that the Pakistani state and military have also in recent years made assiduous efforts to reach out to the leaders of these groups. The Pakistanis have assured them that Pakistan is no longer pursuing its strategy of the 1990s — unconditional support for a Taliban campaign to conquer the whole of Afghanistan — and that both the government and the military support a peace settlement between the Taliban and the former Northern Alliance.
The reasons for this are threefold. Pakistani officials and analysts fear that if the Taliban did win in Afghanistan, they would then be in a position to support the rebellion of the Pakistani Taliban with a view to uniting all the Pashtun lands in an Islamic emirate. However, they also fear that if the Taliban did try to conquer the whole country, they would be beaten back militarily, not least because India would give massive aid to the anti-Taliban forces — a fundamental Pakistani nightmare.
But where would negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, leading to talks between the Taliban and the former Northern Alliance, leave the present government of Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai? The answer, of course, is precisely nowhere, and this explains both Karzai’s anger at the U.S.-Taliban talks and the increasingly wild nature of some of his public comments in recent months.
If Karzai were president for life, or even for another full term, this would be an insuperable obstacle to peace. But key to Karzai’s increasing irrelevance is that under the Afghan Constitution, he has to step down as president next year. There is overwhelming opposition in both Afghanistan and Washington to the idea of him changing the Constitution in order to stay on, or of rigging the presidential elections to ensure victory for a member of his family.
Indeed, an important reason for Washington’s desire for a peace settlement is precisely fear of a political meltdown in Kabul next year, stemming from a bitterly contested and rigged election producing a president whose authority would be rejected by the existing Kabul elites and the Afghan National Army. Thousands of American soldiers would be caught in the middle of the resulting mess.
It is possible therefore to imagine circumstances in which the existing Afghan state could essentially destroy itself from within. The result would be the fragmentation of Afghanistan into different ethnic territories backed by different regional powers. This is a prospect that the Taliban and the vast majority of Afghans fear and loathe.
The path to a settlement will be appallingly difficult, given the presence of hard-line elements on all sides and the bitter hatreds generated by more than 30 years of civil war. On the other hand, the fact that all the parties are committed to holding Afghanistan together provides a basis for peace that was lacking in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus.
America too desperately needs a settlement, both to secure at least some elements of a positive U.S. legacy in Afghanistan, and to save remaining U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan after 2014 from what may otherwise be a truly appalling set of predicaments.
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation, in Washington. He is author of Pakistan: A Hard Country.