Should NATO negotiate with the Taliban unconditionally?

THE shocking loss of six of our soldiers in one incident reminds us all once again of the heavy sacrifice being made by our troops. As an ex-soldier, I know we can be proud of their service. However, the incident confirms the recently leaked NATO report which claims the Taliban insurgency remains intact – despite NATO’s public assertions to the contrary. Having opposed our involvement in Afghanistan from the outset and been critical of our policy ever since, I have long maintained the West should drop its preconditions and start negotiating with the Taliban.

The US and UK governments have so far failed because they have not recognised two fundamentally important distinctions – which even at this late stage could provide a basis for a solution.

The first is that we still fail to distinguish between the “key objective” of keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and the “four main goals” upon which this objective is said to depend. These goals include a stable and secure Afghanistan. The problem is that these goals have become ends in themselves. This loss of focus has produced “mission creep” – talk of “nation building” and concern over human rights are two examples.

This confusion of purpose was clearly illustrated by Gordon Brown when, as Prime Minister, he claimed that our troops were in Afghanistan to protect the streets of London from terrorism, and yet in almost the same breath threatened President Karzai with troop withdrawal should government corruption not come to an end. I suggested to him, during PMQs in 2008, that these statements do not sit well together.

Most recently, the coalition government has given a deadline of 2014 (it was 2015) for troop withdrawal. Again, this is inconsistent. If our commitment is conditions-based (to defeat al-Qaeda) then logically one cannot put a deadline to that. Troops will be withdrawn by 2014 whatever the situation on the ground. Little wonder ministers admit “Joe Public” still has not got the message, when the mission itself is so incoherent.

The second distinction the government fails to explore rigorously is that which exists between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The relationship is complex and not well understood. There is no shortage of evidence to suggest the Taliban would not necessarily let al-Qaeda back in to Afghanistan. Although there are different shades of Taliban, there is very little love lost between them and al-Qaeda. The Taliban know al-Qaeda was ultimately responsible for their downfall. With intelligence sources suggesting there is little remaining of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, we need to explore more fully the possibility that the Taliban would not let them back in as part of a settlement. And yet, the threats from al-Qaeda and the Taliban are conflated and almost synonymous.

These two distinctions are important. If we are trying to build a better Afghanistan, then in all likelihood we have to beat the Taliban. If, however, we are trying to prevent al-Qaeda from returning, then this may not be the case. These distinctions emphasise the need for the Americans and British to open meaningful non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore possible common ground relating to al-Qaeda.

The American view has been that they will only talk if the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution. This is living in dream world. The Taliban will not be beaten and will not lay down their arms. Instead, the British must remind the Americans – who are the lead force – that you can talk and fight at the same time, as we proved in Northern Ireland.

Soldiers only buy time. The politicians must now step up to the plate.

John Baron MP is a Conservative member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

THERE comes a point in almost every insurgency conflict when full negotiations between the opposing sides become necessary and proper. In Afghanistan, that point has not yet arrived.

It is important to state just how dangerous the imposition of an unconditional deadline for the end of NATO combat operations has been in achieving a sustainable resolution to the conflict by the end of 2014.

By giving the insurgents and the Afghan people a fixed timetable, beyond which both know that NATO forces will no longer factor into their considerations, this decision has weakened the negotiating hand of the Afghan government.

The appropriate time for negotiations, in any insurgency, comes when both sides conclude that they cannot defeat one another outright and that continued conflict will take them no further. In other words, when stalemate is reached. The key objective for NATO forces must be to ensure that, when that point is reached, the Afghan government begins negotiations in the strongest position possible.

NATO seeks to achieve that objective, first, by providing the space and security within which Afghanistan’s economic and political development can take place and, second, by developing Afghan security forces to the point that they can continue this effort alone once international forces leave.

With a fixed withdrawal deadline now in place, however, starting full negotiations with the Taliban will be pointless. The insurgents and the Afghan people know the date when the strategic terrain will change, perhaps decisively.

The Taliban may declare their readiness to negotiate but this is likely a façade, designed to strengthen their hand ahead of their recommencement of a full offensive against the Afghan government once NATO forces leave.

Any negotiations that do take place must be Afghan-led and on Afghan terms, and they can only viably begin after NATO forces withdraw. Only then will the conditions emerge that truly convince both sides that there are no further substantial gains to be had from continuing their fight against one another.

Certainly, back-channel negotiations need to happen now; such negotiations are integral to any successful counterinsurgency campaign. Only a small proportion of Taliban insurgents are genuinely committed to the ideological objectives of their leadership. Most fight for more parochial reasons. When deciding whether to continue fighting, they will consider economic alternatives to conflict, but also how far they judge that they are on the winning side.

Given that the withdrawal deadline is now in place, NATO must strengthen the Afghan government’s position as much as possible by 2014.

Nobody is under any illusions that the Afghan government is a less-than perfect partner. Corrupt and often inept, it is a cause of great resentment amongst many Afghans. However, it is far preferable to the alternative. The Taliban is an organisation that throws acid in the faces of girls who go to school and strings up children it accuses of spying on the government. According to the UN, the Taliban were responsible for four-fifths of civilian deaths in Afghanistan last year.

The Taliban’s enduring strength is in its capacity to force acquiescence from a disproportionate number of Afghan people through fear. Just 6 per cent would favour a Taliban government, and only 29 per cent sympathise with them, according to recent polls.

From this less-than ideal situation, the Afghan government and NATO must focus on minimising the Taliban’s capacity to determine the country’s future beyond 2014. If they are to succeed, full negotiations will need to come later.

George Grant is research fellow for the Henry Jackson Society and the author of Succeeding in Afghanistan.