Peace talks need a strategy

On another moonlit runway every month these days, another bearded man is hustled aboard a military jet. He is an ‘intermediary’ from the Taliban and  is about to be flown many hours before sitting down for another chance to talk about ending this war.

As Spiegel reported this week, Germany is one country that his hosting very preliminary “peace talks” in a hope of ending a war in Afghanistan that has cost so many lives. It’s not the only show in town. According to intelligence officials and senior diplomats I’ve interviewed, various “representatives” of the Taliban movement have also been flown to Norway and to Turkey in parallel tracks.

Fresh impetus to this process has been given by President Obama. As terrorism analyst Peter Bergen reports, a little-noticed shift of US policy has all but abandoned pre-conditions for talks to start.

Bergen is sceptical the Taliban is ready for talks – or, citing Pakistani truces with the Talban in its tribal areas, he argues they cannot be trusted anyway.

But while I judge the Taliban is becoming ever more extreme (despite attempts to argue the opposite by former Taliban ambassador Mullah Zaeef and indeed by Mullah Omar himself), if the White House is serious about a peace process, as I believe it is, then the critical question is what path could be chosen that could firstly make the Taliban less extreme and therefore an acceptable partner in a future accord and secondly make the peace process acceptable to the Taliban itself.

As Michael Semple (the Irish former deputy EU envoy to Afghanistan and frequent interlocutor with the Taliban), argues, what’s critical is to allow the Taliban to develop politically and begin its own internal debate on solutions to the conflict. It is only then that its leadership, as the IRA’ leadership did in Northern Ireland, might reach a point of abandoning violence. As a hunted underground military organisation, argues Semple, like the IRA, the Taliban needs its own Sinn Fein, a ‘political wing’ that is tolerated as a legal organisation that can open and office and engage with the wider world. This is the point behind the much-debated plan to allow the Taliban to open an ‘embassy’ in a third-country. (When I last checked, most support this plan – but cannot agree if it should be in Pakistan, as the Pakistanis argue, or in Turkey, as the Afghans and US/UK want). There is also the question here, explored in our Frontline film the other week, of whether the military strategy of ‘decapitation’ with the Kill-Capture program – IF applied too intensely – will or is having the effect or regenerating the Taliban leadership with hot bloods who will neither seek peace nor be an acceptable partner.

Secondly, how to make the peace process acceptable to the Taliban.

Beneath the all the public statements about “Afghan-led Afghan solutions”, there’s no doubt the key parties here are the United States and the Taliban itself. What undermines the US position is a fundamental split within its ranks.

While all may agree that ‘talk is good’, from talking at length to many key players involved, I’ve noted two contradictory positions.

At the White House and State Department, there is a greater support for the strategic track – a meaningful dialogue with the very top of the Taliban, even those close to Al Qaeda, with the hope that all the military pressure applied these last months, will make the movement’s senior leadership begin to realise their best hope of an acceptable deal is now – before they are further eviscerated or lose control of their ranks.

But many in the military take the opposite tack – that no meaningful deal with the Taliban’s ‘Quetta shura’ hierarchy is ever likely to happen in the short or medium term, although there’s no harm in stringing them along. Instead, as in Iraq, the best hope is bludgeon them militarily as hard as possible, seize their strongholds and then use dialogue as way to weaken and split the Taliban – sew dissension and split off its “reconciliable elements”.

Whatever their virtues, these two approaches – good faith talks vs picking them off — are in-compatible. No Taliban leader in his right mind would send an emissary to talk of peace, if he was convinced the main purpose of such contacts was to suborn that envoy and either turn him into a spy, or persuade him to split off and announce he was to ‘re-integrate’.

The hope and intentions are clearly there at the highest level. For President Obama to be successful, there’s much that needs to be done in secret. But more important than discretion is a broader strategy in place that align all elements of the political and military campaign to the bigger goal of ending the war.

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