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Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban

Highlights – Deteriorating security environment increases prospect of peace talks – High-level peace talks unlikely to take place until Taliban violence subsides – Ideological differences between Taliban and Kabul will prove difficult to overcome in establishing a long-term peace deal Recent media reports have suggested that the Afghanistan government, some of its international backers, and parts of the Taliban are interested in pursuing peaceful negotiations. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai had offered to sit down with leaders of the Taliban more than one year ago, but the prospect of peace talks was staunchly opposed by the United States (US) and most of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies operating in the country at the time. However, with a new administration incoming in Washington, the change of leadership at US Central Command (CENTCOM), and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the prospect of at least low-level talks with the Taliban has increased. Despite increased momentum towards peace talks with the Taliban, the US is likely to approach the issue with caution. In addition, the chances of any serious results being achieved are low if the Taliban continues perpetuating high-levels of violence. However, peace negotiations in Afghanistan are only likely to take root if the insurgents find themselves in a stalemate or a situation where they believe peace talks will provide a strategic benefit and ensure their long-term survival, which presently is not the case. Setting the Stage for Negotiations Several principals in the Afghanistan conflict have voiced support for peace negotiations, including the Taliban’s insurgent ally and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, President Hamid Karzai, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. US officials have expressed in-principle support for negotiations, providing the situation on the ground is right. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia personally hosted an exploratory discussion in Mecca between Afghan and Pakistani officials and former Taliban members during Ramadan. On October 28, 2008, Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders held a two-day meeting in Islamabad regarding potential talks with Taliban militants. However, despite several of the conflict’s major actors setting the stage for negotiations, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, if alive, and his fighters are unlikely to halt violence at a time when militants have experienced several tactical successes, as the number of coalition deaths in Afghanistan since May 2008 has exceeded US deaths in Iraq for the first time since the invasion of Iraq. Because of the present situation on the ground in Afghanistan, the US has expressed limited support for talks, but is not aggressively pursuing the idea. Big moves are likely to wait until the next US President takes office and the situation on the ground improves. Robert Neumann, US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, was quoted as saying, “If you go into these talks when you appear to be militarily weak, you’re negotiating a partial surrender.” Overall, before the US is serious about holding talks with Taliban leadership, the security environment in Afghanistan must begin to improve. As it stands, we do not expect the overall security situation in the country to improve in the near-term. Negotiation with the Taliban NATO countries operating in Afghanistan have shown inconsistency over the issue of negotiating with the Taliban, indicating there are significant levels of disagreement within the organization. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently stated it would be “very difficult” for Afghanistan to negotiate directly with the Taliban while troops were still being killed there, which is indicative of the United Kingdom’s (UK) skepticism over the issue. However, the prospect of future peace talks increases as there is a growing perception that the international mission is faltering. With Taliban insurgents launching

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OODA Analyst

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