Some months back, in a not for attribution briefing on Afghanistan, a Canadian military official observed that the Taliban are skilled at luring foreign forces into tactical military victories that actually become strategic victories for the Taliban. A new report from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the situation in Afghanistan[i] essentially confirms that admission - with significant implications for current and growing calls to pursue a negotiated end to the fighting.

The Secretary-General reports that the "multiple military successes" of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Army in the most dangerous and insecure parts of Afghanistan continue to be accompanied by declining security and declining support for the Karzai government. Despite a significantly expanded ISAF, he says, "access to rural areas of south and south-eastern Afghanistan for official and civil society actors has continued to decline."

It used to be called winning the battle while losing the war.

Military successes can lead to strategic setbacks for a variety of reasons, and in Afghanistan two important factors are battlefield victories accompanied by large numbers of civilian deaths and battles that are won on behalf of a government that many in the south in particular find corrupt and hostile to their collective interests. The UN mission in Afghanistan recorded over 1,000 civilian deaths from January 1 to August 31 at the hands of both pro- and anti-governmental forces, and independent monitoring indicates that the majority of these are attributable to pro-government forces.[ii] In addition, the Secretary-General says there exists in the Karzai government "a culture of patronage and direct involvement in illegal activities, including the drug trade, especially within the police force."

To achieve strategic success - that is, a stable security environment and a government that earns the confidence of most Afghans - the Secretary-General says the counter-insurgency effort will have to include "political outreach to disaffected groups." In other words, the disaffected community now confronted on the battlefield needs to be engaged through a serious negotiation/reconciliation process. His call was echoed with growing urgency by Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the weekend.[iii]

As these calls for negotiations increase they also generate cautionary voices, on two counts in particular. First, say some experts, though negotiation may almost always be appropriate in principle, such talks need to be pursued in situations in which the belligerents have real incentives to consider accommodation and compromise - in other words, the conflict must be ripe.[iv]Second, one incentive for belligerents to come to the table is provided by military pressure - in other words, a call for negotiations is therefore said to be incompatible with parallel calls for military withdrawal and thus an easing of military pressure.[v]

The question is, do these two conditions apply to the current situation in Afghanistan?

Ripeness for negotiation generally flows from military stalemate - a situation in which neither side is moving toward victory and both sides are suffering. There is a reason experts call this a "hurting stalemate." In Afghanistan, because the insurgency is still on the rise, is still gaining strength, some analysts argue that Afghanistan has not yet reached that hurting stalemate. The international forces admit that this war is not militarily winnable and so have ample incentive to pursue alternatives, given the apparently growing strength of the insurgents, Taliban-led forces are unlikely to regard themselves as on the run and under pressure to seek a negotiated compromise. And Mullah Omar's quick rebuff of President Karzai's offer would appear to confirm that further "ripening" is still needed.

In fact, however, even if the insurgents consider their fortunes to be rising in the south, that does not lift them out of an overall stalemate. The Taliban cannot avoid the hard reality that their base is confined to the south and that they cannot credibly regard themselves on the ascendancy in the country as a whole. They have to understand that they face a long struggle in the south, and, even if successful, they cannot expect to push beyond the Pashtun-dominated south and southeast - and they also have to assume that a larger role for the Pashtun/Taliban in the country as a whole will only be achievable through negotiations.

The second point, the argument that negotiations should not be accompanied by an easing of military pressure, is relevant only if the tactical military victories of the government and its foreign backers actually produce strategic setbacks for the insurgents. But if ISAF's military victories succeed mainly in building up resentment against the government and its international backers, it is doubtful that continuing military action will work toward more effective negotiations. Current military pressure is as likely to work against the negotiating interests of ISAF and the Government of Afghanistan if that military pressure generates more alienation than trust.

It is no wonder then that the Secretary-General points to the need for a shift in military focus away from assaults on insurgents. "Afghan civilian and military leaders," he says, "need to play a greater role in planning security operations and ensuring that military gains are consolidated with the provision of basic security by State institutions."

In other words, instead of trying to kill more insurgents, and a lot of civilians in the process, the focus needs to be on the delivery of genuine security and consolidating gains through reconstruction and improved government services in those areas already held by the government, and then, from that base, to engage populations and combatants in insurgent-held areas in pursuit of a negotiated consensus in support of a new Afghan political alignment.


[i] The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, Report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly and Security Council, September 21, 2007 (A/62/345 - S/2007/555).

[ii] See July 18/07 posting and,"Afghan investigation finds 62 Taliban, 45 civilians killed in southern battle," International Herald Tribune, June 30, 2007.

[iii] Dene Moore, "Afghan human rights official says talks with Taliban best option for peace," The Canadian Press, Canoe Network News, September 30, 2007 (

[iv] Fen Osler Hampson, "Don't rush to the negotiating table," The Globe and Mail, September 18, 2007.

[v] Peter Jones, "Should we negotiate with the Taliban?, The Ottawa Citizen, September 23, 2007.

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