Talk to the Taliban

By Greg Mills, the director of the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa, was a special adviser to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from May to September. A version of this article was originally published in The International Herald Tribune (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18/09/06):

IF the past five years of increasingly violent fighting in Afghanistan have proved anything, it is this: The Taliban and their allies cannot be beaten by military means alone. Perhaps, then, the moment has come to talk to the Taliban and other insurgents.

But before we do anything, we have to understand them. Nearly half of Afghanistan’s population is Pashtun, the ethnic group from which the Taliban draw the bulk of their foot soldiers and supporters. In the international effort to shift the population’s loyalties away from the Taliban, the Pashtuns have, not surprisingly, proved more resistant than the country’s other main groups, the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks. But for all four groups, the American and other members of the International Security Assistance Force now in Afghanistan are visitors, probably temporary and increasingly unwelcome, like the British colonizers and Soviets before them.

Though the Taliban came to be loathed by most non-Pashtuns, it’s important to remember that initially their efforts to restore security after the chaotic collapse of Communist rule in the mid-1990’s were applauded. Some Afghans maintain that it was only after non-Afghans, especially Arabs, began to exert control over the movement in the late 1990’s that the Taliban became sinister and brutal. Memories of their early role might explain why many Afghans are prepared to turn a blind eye to their resurgence.

But it’s also important to remember that the insurgency consists of more than just the Taliban. To describe anti-coalition forces in the country as a single entity is to ignore their important differences and hamper our ability to negotiate. The Taliban are allied predominantly to the Pashtun ethnic cause, and their alliance with the relatively affluent Qaeda seems more a marriage of convenience than ideology, given Afghans’ mistrust of Arabs; another major jihadi group, the Hezb-i-Islami, seems interested above all in gaining power for its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

And just as Afghanistan itself is riven by ethnic divisions, within each group in the insurgency, tribe, clan or family membership often transcends other loyalties. These competing objectives afford us opportunities to split and co-opt these groups even as we seek militarily to deny them sanctuary in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we can’t do that if we lump them all together as terrorists.

It is often forgotten that before 9/11 there was an active round of international diplomacy aimed at engaging the Taliban. Then, as now, engagement did not mean endorsement.

In October 2000, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, agreed to open indirect negotiations with the opposition Northern Alliance via the United Nations to try to halt the civil war. This failed in the main because of the Qaeda attack on the Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen, and the realization that Afghanistan was increasingly under the sway of Osama bin Laden and dependent on his coffers.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop pressuring the Taliban militarily. But the West needs to take heed of one of the first principles of counterinsurgency: Know your enemy. They, too, have hopes, fears and aspirations that are not necessarily in conflict with our own, or, more important, the Afghan government’s. Where common ground can be identified, political accommodation and an end to the violence may just be achievable.