The Taliban have won the war. And now what? Now it is time to negotiate. This is certainly a complex task, fraught with moral and strategic dilemmas. It is easier to start a war than to end it. But right now, there are few alternatives available for one side or the other: multiple negotiations at multiple levels are needed.
Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and a key player in the negotiations with the IRA, describes very well the dilemmas of governments concerning conflict negotiation in the book Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, which ICIP has just translated into Spanish. The book describes negotiation experiences in a dozen armed conflicts around the world. Powell is a strong advocate of dialogue, even with the most extremist groups.
In fact, the international community is faced with supporting the new regime – as it did during the first Taliban government (1996-2001) – or maintaining some dialogue to influence its decisions. The motivations for maintaining channels of communication may be geopolitical interests (to maintain influence on the Central Asian chessboard), humanitarian commitment to people who want to flee and, above all, to those who will not be able to leave, and less lofty interests such as preventing the flow of refugees. The United Nations, in particular, is risking its prestige if it is not able to find a way to lead and play a role in guaranteeing human rights and maintaining peace.
On the other hand, the Taliban also face multiple negotiation dilemmas. First of all, they will need to resolve internal power disputes. The Taliban are not a monolithic organization but rather a federation. There are more moderate and more radical factions within the organization, and they will have to reconcile their differences.
At the same time, they will also have to decide whether to share power with other political groups in the country and establish some transitional government. Otherwise, an armed opposition could organize with the risk of starting another civil war.
Thirdly, the new government will need to establish diplomatic relations and guarantee a minimum of international support (financial, technical and humanitarian) to get the public administration of a country in ruins back on track. The last time they governed, their government had only been recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Now they know that this is not enough. They have also learned that if they want to collaborate with other regional powers such as Russia and especially China, they will have to negotiate, compromise and demonstrate their commitment and ability to honour agreements.
Finally, the most important negotiations: between the government and its own population. We are not referring to direct negotiations, but the new government will have to find a way to manage criticism. Let’s not fool ourselves: as with an authoritarian regime, repression will probably be the preferred option. But there is a price to pay for repression, which the Taliban will have to consider.
In short, no one in Afghanistan today has much interest in dialogue and negotiation, but they seem to be inevitable factors. At the end of the day, the question is not whether or not to negotiate but to know how to find the moment and agree on the methodology and the agenda of the negotiation… aspects that are certainly not easy. In 2001, the Americans had the option of negotiating the surrender of the Taliban. They had the upper hand but refused to do so out of arrogance. Twenty years later, with a humanitarian tragedy on their shoulders, they wound up negotiating a very questionable agreement with their enemies.
Kristian Herbolzheimer, Director of ICIP