Desperate for a Taliban Deal?

Last week’s London conference on Afghanistan was hopeful and encouraging for the continuing international focus it placed on that country. But several ideas, particularly President Karzai’s prominent call for reconciliation with the Taliban, need some work.

In fact the Taliban themselves said as much—immediately rejecting Karzai’s suggestion, just as they have on previous occasions when he has made it. They believe themselves to be winning and as such continue to insist that any negotiations only occur once foreign forces are gone—meaning when they would have the upper hand over the government militarily, in all likelihood.

There is a role for trying to wean away some Taliban supporters from the core ideological movement, to be sure. But we must be careful not to seem so desperate for a deal that the Taliban misinterpret our offer to talk as a position of weakness, or making the best of a losing hand.

In fact, with another nearly 40,000 international troops arriving in Afghanistan this year, and a rapidly improving Afghan army and police, we should be confident, not despondent. Naturally, American voters, and Afghans, are frustrated by the length of this war as well as the ground that has been lost to resistance forces over the last three to four years. However, thanks to President Obama’s policy reviews of 2009 and some local developments, 2010 is shaping up as a hopeful year in Afghanistan and we should bear that in mind.

One idea voiced at London was to offer money to the Taliban to switch sides. This kind of approach must be handled delicately. While Afghans are suffering from lack of sewage system, roads, canalization, garbage collection or job opportunities, spending $146 million on reconciliation to pay off the Taliban is unacceptable to most Afghans.

If financial incentives are to be part of our approach to convincing former insurgents to support the government, there should not be discrimination in favor of the Taliban. That is not only unfair, it also creates perverse incentives for people to join the resistance first in order to be bribed by the government to switch sides. Economic incentives should be offered to communities willing to do their part in support of the building of the country. That approach can sometimes include former insurgents if there are adequate monitoring mechanisms on their future behavior, but they should not be the primary beneficiaries of government largesse.

As for bringing Taliban leaders into the Kabul government, that must be handled very carefully, too. They must of course accept the constitution, the peaceful resolution of disputes, the rights of women (and of those less committed to an ultra-conservative form of Islam than they are), and the Afghan people’s ongoing need for help from the international community for a period of time. In other words, reconciliation should be mostly on our terms, not on theirs.

When trying to create a broad deal involving many groups in society, it is important to include many groups in the discussions. Yet Afghan civil society was excluded from attending this conference. Afghan media could barely find any individuals on the streets of Kabul who agreed to the reintegration strategy. Virtually all criticized Karzai for taking his reintegration strategy to London without consensus of the Afghan people (as one of us, Sherjan, personally can attest).

So yes, let’s keep reintegration and reconciliation in our tool kit. However, it is still premature to expect much of the idea, and such approaches will always have to be handled very, very carefully in Afghanistan.