The Obama and Karzai administrations are both trying to open negotiation channels with the movement, each for their own reasons. President Obama hopes to bring some level of stability to Afghanistan through a political settlement with the Taliban as he withdraws the majority of American troops from the country by the end of 2014 – a face-saving approach of some sort. Likewise, President Karzai wishes to strike a deal with the Taliban before the end of his presidential mandate in the spring of 2014, hoping to leave a legacy of peace-building behind.
But perhaps the very reasons why presidents Obama and Karzai are pushing for talks with the Taliban are preventing the insurgent movement from responding in kind. Given the short time remaining of NATO’s combat mission, as well as Karzai’s term as president, what incentives do the Taliban have in agreeing to any negotiations? Why would they negotiate with Americans who are running toward the exit, or with Karzai who will not be in power in a few months?
None of these necessary conditions presently exist in Afghanistan. The Taliban ostensibly hold the upper hand in the conflict. Despite years of severe military pressure by NATO and Afghan security forces, the movement has proved to be a resilient force, continuing to wage a fierce campaign of insurgency and terrorism. This does not mean they are winning the war on the battlefield; in fact, it is quite the opposite. But the insurgents do not need to win the battles to win the war. As long as they are capable of maintaining conditions of un-governability in large parts of the country, they retain a relative advantage over the government. Given the Taliban’s ability to constantly recruit fighters, mobilize resources, and maintain sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan – important ingredients of a powerful insurgency – they will be able to seriously challenge the government for the foreseeable future.
Conditions with the Afghan government are different. The government is weak, fragile, and corrupt. The Afghan security forces, while improving, suffer from high attrition rates, low retention levels, and inadequate logistical capabilities. The Afghan public, having witnessed little positive change in their lives – despite tens of billions of dollars in international aid – are extremely wary of the government. Meanwhile, the international community is winding down its presence in Afghanistan on all fronts – militarily, economically, and politically.
Uncertainty looms high about what the future may hold. While the Taliban seem to be able to sustain at least their status quo posture for the foreseeable future, the survival of the Afghan state over the medium to long term is indeterminate. Many variables are at work: Will NATO maintain a sizable force in Afghanistan after 2014? Will the Afghan security forces gain the needed capacity to protect the state and the people? Will the international community continue to finance the Afghan state? Will the government be able to gain the confidence of the Afghan public?
The coming presidential elections, set to be held in April 2014, only add to the uncertainty. Sitting aside the great challenges of holding the elections, it is unknown who will come to power, and what policy they will pursue regarding reconciliation. Whether the next administration would honor any deals President Karzai might make with the Taliban now is a big question. Therefore, Karzai and his team have no credibility in making any commitments to the Taliban.
Given this strategic environment, the Taliban have no incentive to agree to negotiations. Their best bet is to refrain from negotiations and hold onto their current postures while the fate of the Afghan state is determined – a strategy the Taliban seems to fully understand and strictly pursue.
The Obama and Karzai administrations, too, will best serve their respective interests in halting efforts at negotiations, and focusing their attention and resources on ensuring the long run survival of the Afghan state. Instead of wasting time and resources on futile reconciliation efforts, they should work to better the quality of governance, decrease corruption, facilitate economic development, and finalize the overdue bilateral security agreement.
Meaningful negotiations with the Taliban will be possible only after the Afghan government proves that it can survive and thrive. Until such time, there are few grounds for optimism that any efforts at talking with the Taliban could lead to a political breakthrough.
Sharifi is a PhD student at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.