Talking to the Taliban is not as easy as it sounds. As US soldiers count down the days until most of them leave Afghanistan, the country’s future remains difficult to discern.
Hamid Karzai’s government is at once seeking to negotiate with the Taliban and cajole the US into leaving a large residual garrison after 2014. Mr Karzai appears to have even encouraged Pakistan’s recent release of Afghan Taliban prisoners.
The US, too, is trying to facilitate talks, even signing off on Qatar’s plan to offer the Taliban office space in Doha. But the Taliban keep up the attacks, most recently on Monday in a deadly raid on Kabul’s traffic police headquarters.
Prospects for a negotiated solution may seem bleak, but it is important to remember that “the Taliban” is a misleading phrase. Today’s Taliban is not the relatively coherent regime of Islamist zealots that governed the country so badly from 1996 until late 2001. Eleven years of bloodshed later, any three young men with rifles and a pickup truck might be described as Taliban. Afghanistan is a land of disparate valleys, tribes, clans, minorities, factions and loyalties – and everyone has a rifle.
Forging a durable nation state across those divisions will be the work of decades. To the extent that it is possible, however, it must include some factions from within Taliban ranks. Indeed, it already has: members of Kabul’s parliament and Mr Karzai’s government describe themselves as former Taliban members.
It was a mistake from the beginning of the war to brand every opponent to coalition forces as part of a monolithic “Taliban”. Even among the dominant groups – the Quetta Shura of Mullah Mohammed Omar; Hizb-e-Islami, founded by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which is a fading force but openly favours talks; and the Haqqani network, nominally subordinate to Mullah Omar and believed to be closely linked to the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI – there are divisions and shifting loyalties.
The reality is that in the coming years, Mr Karzai’s government and its foreign backers will have to pursue a sophisticated diplomatic approach, pursuing negotiations with some factions while undoubtedly continuing to fight others on the battlefield. Pakistan’s chaotic state shows the dangers of this policy, as it fights Tehrik-i-Taliban for control of its own territory while negotiating with related Afghan groups. But there is no other choice.
A war of attrition against “the Taliban” is doomed to failure – too many people fit that vague category now. There are justified reservations about negotiations with leaders such as Mullah Omar, but ultimately Afghans must come to their own settlement.