Thursday’s London conference on Afghanistan, where the Afghan government, Britain and Japan have presented their plans for reconciliation with the Taliban, has reignited a months-long debate about whether or not to negotiate with the Salafi insurgents. Although passions run strong on both sides of the debate, in its abstract form—negotiate: yes or no—the discussion is of little policy usefulness. The real question about negotiating with the Taliban is what shape and content any such negotiation and reconciliation should have, and what are the costs and benefits of such an approach.
THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF NEGOTIATIONS AND RECONCILIATION: SOME QUICK LESSONS FROM HISTORY
Negotiations and reconciliation frequently have been a critical component of ending conflict, reducing violence and saving lives: be they the pentiti laws in Italy directed toward the Red Brigades, or amnesty for the Shining Path’s soldiers in Peru, or negotiations between the Provisional IRA and the Unionists in Northern Ireland.
For many who advocate negotiations with the Taliban, negotiations are a way to extricate forces from what they consider unattainable and perhaps unimportant objectives in Afghanistan. But this position ignores the real and acute threat still emanating from the region, in the form of terrorism and severe regional instability. It also underestimates the risk and the costs associated with negotiations, such as giving the opponent a chance to increase its forces, recuperate, and renege on its promises. In Colombia during the 1990s, the government’s negotiations with the FARC enabled the leftist guerrillas to greatly increase their military power and pose a far greater threat to the Colombian state than it did before. Pakistan’s negotiations with various Taliban incarnations in Southern and Northern Waziristan and Swat resulted in intolerable threats to the Pakistani state, people, and the international community.
So what are the considerations that should drive the shape and content of the negotiations and reconciliation process with the Taliban?