Talking to terrorists

We can't win without negotiations, but they must be smart negotiations

December 21, 2010|By Mitchell B. Reiss

The recent revelation that a high-level Taliban "commander" who was negotiating terms of peace with the Afghan government was an imposter is a stunning embarrassment for the Karzai administration, NATO and the United States. Confidence in the value of a constructive dialogue with the Taliban, not to mention a lot of money, was surely drained in the process.

The lesson from this debacle is not to stop trying to engage the Taliban but to do it smarter. The U.S.-backed policy of negotiating with the Taliban is the right one. As Gen. David Petraeus and others have said, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory when faced with a terrorist insurgency. At some point, we need to talk.

But the case of the fake Taliban has unintentionally highlighted the many serious challenges to establishing a productive dialogue. The most recent diplomatic effort failed because of fraud, but future efforts will also fail unless Washington develops a strategy based on the lessons other countries have learned over the years in successfully negotiating with terrorists and insurgents.

Among the most important lessons is that diplomacy is war by other means.

You can't win at the negotiating table what you can't defend on the battlefield. Unless the Taliban believe they are losing the war, or that they have no chance of ever winning because Afghan, NATO and U.S. troops have the stamina to fight indefinitely, they will have little incentive to talk.

And our side of the table will have little leverage to compel them to do so. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama's decision to start withdrawing U.S. forces next July has undermined chances for a negotiated settlement, as has President Hamid Karzai's criticism of U.S. special operations that have targeted high-value Taliban leaders. No doubt this is why General Petraeus and administration officials have recently been claiming that American forces will now remain in Afghanistan until 2014 and perhaps longer.

A first-rate intelligence service is another essential element for ending an insurgency. It must be able to map what the military calls the human terrain. Without the ability to peer inside the group and determine its leaders, the structure of the organization, competing factions and personal and professional relationships, any negotiation is akin to flying blind.

The most important task here is advising the government whether the terrorist group genuinely wants to end its violence or is merely seeking a timeout to regroup and reload. If it isn't sincere about a negotiated settlement, then there is no reason to talk and great danger in trying to do so. Seeking a compromise with an uncompromising terrorist insurgency will undermine the credibility of the government, cause friends and allies to lose heart and cost the lives of security and police forces. Unfortunately, the Taliban has so far given no indication that it is serious about negotiating an end to the conflict, according to recent statements by CIA Director Leon Panetta.

An intelligence service will further need to identify the charismatic leader who not only has credibility with his fellow comrades but who also possesses the imagination and determination to persuade the group to lay down its arms and accept a political solution.

This "skill set" is rare among terrorist and insurgent groups and may not exist among the Taliban leadership. The United States has had difficulty in penetrating the various clans that fight under the banner of the Taliban. Does Mullah Omar, the Taliban's ostensible head, or any other insurgent possess this particular skill set? We don't know.

A final lesson is that patience is not just a virtue in these situations, it can be a strategic advantage. This is particularly true in Afghanistan, with its long tradition of fighting foreigners. Turning a few initial, clandestine encounters with terrorists and insurgents into a sustainable diplomatic process is never easy and always takes far longer than impatient governments would like. For example, in Spain it took the government well over a decade to get hard-core members of the Basque terrorist group, ETA, into serious talks; the threat of ETA terror is still present. In Northern Ireland, the British needed more than 25 years to create a diplomatic framework that included representatives of the IRA.

The hoax in Afghanistan should strip away a lot of wishful thinking about diplomatic engagement with the Taliban. Many have viewed diplomacy as a relatively quick and easy way for America to exit from the war. The experiences of other countries that have confronted similar enemies suggest that any successful engagement will be arduous, complex and protracted.

A negotiated solution with the Taliban may one day be possible, but only if Washington understands the many challenges this type of diplomacy involves.

Mitchell B. Reiss is the president of Washington College in Chestertown and the author of "Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists." His e-mail is ----

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