Talking to the Taliban

Talking to the Taliban

For a state to negotiate with its bitter enemies is hardly a new concept, but when that was recently suggested for Afghanistan and the Taliban, commentators from Rex Murphy[i]to theWestern Standard[ii]managed only to ridicule the idea. The Globe and Mail editorialized that "if there were a realistic prospect that all sides shared this goal [of reconstruction and meeting the basic needs of Afghans], Canadian soldiers would not be fighting in Afghanistan"[iii] - and since we are fighting the Taliban, was the message, why would we negotiate with them? Afghanistan's Ambassador to Canada cast it as a general principle: there cannot be "peace talks between an elected government and heavily-armed gangs of militant school-burners'[iv]

If that is indeed a principle, we should be grateful that it is regularly honored in the breach. Governments of varying degrees of democracy are even now in prolonged negotiations with non-state groups guilty of vicious attacks on civilians and state authorities.[v] In north east India the elected Government is negotiating with multiple rebel groups to try to end a quarter century of attacks. The same goes for Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. The current Government of Sudan includes southern rebels with whom it finally negotiated an end to decades of war, and it is now in similar negotiations with Darfur rebels, and one can only hope those talks will not drag out as long.

In the Mozambique of the early 1990s and Uganda today, Governments finally had to sit down and deal with insurgents guilty of the vilest of deeds. The elected Government of Uganda is now in talks with the Lord's Resistance Army, a group of heavily armed bandits with no apparent agenda other than the maniacal fantasies of its leader and the kidnapping of young children - but after two decades, the unspeakable horrors for which there have proven to be no military solutions must be ended. And so they're talking.[vi]

Enemies talk to each other because that is how wars are ended. Calls by Canadians for talks by the Government of Afghanistan and its international backers with the Taliban recognize some hard realities. First, there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict - indeed, Canada's Defence chief, Gen. Rick Hillier recently confirmed it "has never been the strategy" to defeat the Taliban militarily.[vii] Second, the credibility of the Karzai Government and the foreign military forces in Afghanistan are inextricably linked. And the declining credibility of both in large parts of the country sets up the third hard reality: many Afghans are transferring their allegiance to the very groups the international forces are fighting. That in turn means that restoring the legitimacy and effectiveness of the central government and its backers is not simply a matter of improved performance but also depends on a commitment to political inclusiveness that reaches out to those now in opposition to the government.

The UN-mandated and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is explicitly charged with supporting the Government and assisting it in maintaining security in support of Afghan reconstruction.[viii] But the Government's failure to meet reconstruction goals (in significant measure due to the failure of the international community to provide effective non-military support), charges of corruption, and deals with feared war lords have contributed to a decline in support and thus to a sense that ISAF is propping up an illegitimate regime. Similarly, counter-insurgency strategies that kill civilians[ix] and displace communities, and charges that ISAF is advancing American interests rather than serving the security needs of Afghans, have contributed to the sense that the Government is being supported by foreign forces that do not have the interests of Afghans at heart - and thus the suspicion that the Government itself does not have the interests of Afghans at heart is exacerbated.

The most recent report of the Senlis Council, a British think tank on security and development with an office in Kabul and researchers on the ground, describes the consequence - increasing support for the Taliban.[x] The people of the troubled south have genuine grievances and more and more of them are driven to conclude that the Taliban are a credible vehicle for expressing those grievances. That is why Afghans increasingly see ISAF, not as a force to support the government of the people of Afghanistan and to build security, but as "taking sides in a civil war situation between two groups competing for power in Afghanistan."

It is appropriate to be cautious about accepting any one interpretation or perspective as the complete truth, but realism demands attention to the warnings of serious failure and requires a more credible response than a call for more soldiers, and now tanks.[xi]

A pre-requisite to peace is that Afghans become persuaded that their government has the interests of all Afghans at heart. In turn, that means dealing with those political-military entities outside of government that represent the genuine grievances of Afghans - a group that by all accounts now includes at least elements of the Taliban. It is certainly true that conditions need to be right for successful negotiations, and it is not for observers in distant Canada to name the people, places, and times for such talks. But it is entirely appropriate for outside observers to insist on the principle that the Afghan government and its backers talk to their declared adversaries in search of accommodations that respect the needs of Afghans and international standards of human rights.

If, as Defence Minister O'Connor now agrees, there is truly no military solution to the conflict,[xii] it is a conflict that must finally be disarmed - by eschewing counter-insurgency military strategies that further undermine the credibility of the Government, by setting the stage for negotiations to draw in the representatives of dissident communities and regions, and by putting a lot more effort into humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.

There is little we can be sure of regarding the future of Afghanistan, but one thing we can safely predict, the war in Afghanistan will not end without negotiations with fighters we now know only as "the Taliban" or "drug war lords." In any armed conflict, if significant stakeholders believe that peace will entrench a political order that leaves them indefinitely marginalized, they will prefer war to peace - and as we are repeatedly reminded, Afghans wrote the book on the futility of trying to militarily defeat determined insurgencies.


[i] CBC News, The National, "Why are we in Afghanistan?" (

[ii] "Dosanjh: negotiate with terrorists," Western, Sept. 1/06 (

[iii] "With the Taliban, Globe and Mail, Sept. 1/06 (

[iv] Omar Samad, "The Afghan mission is not a failure," Globe and Mail, Sept. 6/06.

[v] Project Ploughshares, 2006 Armed Conflicts Report (

[vi] "Uganda: Landmark peace talks stumble,", Sept. 8/06 (

[vii] Bill Schiller, "Force alone won't beat Taliban, Canada's defence minister says," The Record, Sept. 8/06.

[viii] UN Security Council Resolutions 1368, 1386, and 1510.

[ix] Civilian deaths which turn the population against pro-Government military forces are a predictable consequence of counter-insurgency wars, and the current Operation Medusa is apparently no exception. Graeme Smith, "Civilian deaths reported in Operation Medusa," Globe and Mail, Sept. 8/06.

[x] The Senlis Council, Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban, September 2006 (

[xi] Campbell Clark, "Canada sending 15 tanks, 120 more troops," Globe and Mail, Sept. 11/06.

[xii] Schiller, "Force alone won't beat Taliban, Canada's defence minister says," The Record, Sept. 8/06.

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