A Shot in the Dark
To much of the world’s surprise, the US and Afghanistan governments both announced on June 18th that they would begin negotiation talks with the Taliban. To no surprise, weeks have passed and efforts appear to be fleeting as no negotiations have taken place. The prospects for negotiations are more distant now than before they were announced, and all credit goes to the Taliban.
Following the announcement, a flurry of events exacerbated tensions between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. One of the demands made by the Taliban (in order for them to participate in talks with the US) was the opening of an office in Doha, Qatar. The US and Pakistan governments conceded, despite opposition from President Karzai. Soon after, Karzai’s concerns were substantiated; moments after the office was set up, the Taliban raised their flag and displayed a sign that read “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the title given to the country while it was under imposed Taliban leadership. As if diplomatic complications were not enough, during the week negotiations were announced the Taliban was found responsible for multiple attacks in Afghanistan, with one attempt targeted at the Presidential palace. This went blatantly against one of the US’s conditions for engaging in talks with the Taliban: that the group renounce violence as a tactic. Despite this, both the Afghanistan and US governments released statements that these events would not affect the peace talks.
The relationship between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban has always been unstable, and it is difficult to argue that these talks are making their non-cooperative relationship any worse. However, there have been assertions that these talks could damage Afghanistan-US relations. President Karzai is already apprehensive towards America and its commitment to his government, and the sequence of events following the opening of the Taliban office has done nothing to alleviate his concerns. Secretary of State John Kerry was involved in multiple phone calls following each incident to reassure Karzai of US commitment to the Afghanistan government. Arguments that these prospective talks are worsening the relationship appear to be unfounded. In fact, despite his reservations, President Karzai acknowledged that his government needs strong commitments from the US in order to have long-term peace and security. The US was aware of the complicated nature of attempting these talks, and yet was willing to take the calculated risk. This indicates that the US finds attempting these talks a necessary step in the process of furthering their commitment to long-term peace in Afghanistan.
Realistically, the talks with the Taliban are likely to fail. Similar negotiations with the Taliban that were attempted under the Clinton administration failed, and if history teaches anything with regard to negotiating with insurgents, it’s that it is nearly impossible to negotiate with people who don’t understand the word ‘compromise’. Compromise means nothing to insurgents since the ability to play by your own rules is the incentive to become a non-state actor in the first place. The reality of global politics today is that state actors are not always the biggest concerns or players in international, or domestic, security. Usually these actors operate on impulse; if they do not like what they see from the government, they throw them out to impose their own agenda. This is precisely what the Taliban did in Afghanistan prior to US and NATO intervention.
Negotiations are not doomed solely by the unpredictable nature of the Taliban as an insurgent group, but also by its basic structuring. As succinctly outlined in “Who are the Taliban Negotiators in Doha?” by Bahram Rahman, it is clear that the Taliban is not simply one group of actors. Instead, it is a composite of multiple factions with multiple motivations and multiple methods of executing actions. In addition, the hierarchy is so blurry (with some claiming that the Taliban doesn’t even have one) that it decreases the likelihood that even if talks are successful in Doha, all insurgents who fall under the category of the “Taliban” will actually find the negotiations credible.
The Message is more Powerful than the (Failed) Action
Clearly, analyzing the negotiations with the Taliban based on the actual negotiations will indicate a failure from all parties involved. However, this is the wrong angle from which to look at the events. Even if the talks fail (which so far, seems likely) the US still had an incentive to attempt talks with the Taliban. In the extreme case where negotiations occur, are successful, and all those that fall under the Taliban umbrella act on the terms agreed upon, the US will have accomplished something that will be highly coveted in upcoming years: taming insurgents and getting them to the table to talk. Convincing unpredictable, unaccountable actors to be responsive to some form of accountability could result in their integration into the ‘structure’ of international politics. By engaging with the Taliban, the US is sending a strong message that they stand for a structured international framework for all actors – state or independent – to function within.
In the chance that talks fail, or happen and nothing productive results from them, at least the US will have asserted its commitment to long-term peace in Afghanistan. The senior US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen Joseph Dunford, cast doubt on whether the [Taliban] would make peace, and yet his country and his organization are the two that are backing the talks.
Sometimes the message is more powerful than the action itself. In the upcoming weeks, it will be important to look beyond the unsatisfying responses that will likely come from all parties involved in these peace negotiations. Instead, it will be more productive to make note of the broader impacts of attempting this conversation. Whether they are successful or not, these talks are projecting the perpetual US foreign policy in Afghanistan: a commitment to long-term peace in the region, by any means necessary. In this regard, despite the failure of the talks thus far, the US is still achieving its goal.