Saturday, April 7, 2012

Why did the Taliban drop out of peace talks?

Last month, the Taliban officially dropped out of peace talks with U.S. negotiators, citing the "ever-changing position" and “shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans." Former-Afghan-Prime-Minister-turned-insurgent Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami—which, unlike the Taliban, has been talking with the Afghan Government—followed suit, suspending talks with both Kabul and American officials, claiming that neither had “any practical and acceptable approach for the solution of the crisis.”

Why have insurgents suspended talks?

First off, the Taliban’s claim of the Americans’ “ever-changing position” is probably disingenuous: the Americans have stuck with three preconditions: the Taliban must cease its attacks, renounce al Qaeda, and accept the legitimacy of the Afghan Constitution. Of course, other demands may have since been introduced that the public is not privy to—and the Obama Administration has encountered Congressional opposition to the release of key Taliban detainees from Guantanamo.

More likely, the Taliban’s decision to withdraw from talks is a negotiation ploy—with recent events playing into the insurgents’ calculus. As the Council on Foreign Relation’s Stephen Biddle argued:
I suspect it's a tactical move that's designed to put some increased pressure on us to sweeten the negotiations. The video of marines urinating on Taliban corpses, the Quran burning, the shooting episode last Sunday in which sixteen Afghans were killed have hurt our cause. Every time something like that happens, a rational negotiator on the other side is going to conclude that their hand just got stronger and their ability to extract concessions just went up.
The Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami are sending an important signal to the Americans: given the continued stalemate, the poor state of Afghan security forces, and the erratic and often baffling behavior of Hamid Karzai in the negotiation process, the Obama Administration direly needs the insurgents' participation in order to move forward with its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. By withholding this participation, the Taliban is likely hoping the US will entice them back to the negotiating table, either by easing up on some of preconditions or delivering on promises already made.

And it appears to be working. Late last month, Reuters reported that the Defense Department has rethought the conditions set on the transfer of 5 Taliban officials from Guantanamo to Qatar:
The administration, in negotiations led by the Defense Department, has indicated to Qatar that it would be willing to transfer five Taliban detainees now at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison to the Gulf emirate on condition that Qatari authorities provide assurances the men would not be allowed to leave Qatar, the officials said. 
In indicating that it would expect Qatar to restrict the travel of the Taliban leaders, the United States has also signaled that it is willing to forgo tighter restrictions which it had originally discussed with the Qataris, such as imprisonment, house arrest or continuous monitoring by security forces.
In addition, there is suspicion that the move reflects internal divisions within the insurgency over the benefits of talking as opposed to fighting. According Los Angeles Times:
Within the movement, some believe it might make more sense to wait out the U.S. militarypresence rather than come to the bargaining table. The insurgents are well aware of growing calls in the United States for a sped-up pullout from Afghanistan, calls that intensified after the massacre of 17 villagers in Kandahar province, in which a U.S. Army staff sergeant has been charged. 
Heading into the spring "fighting season," some Taliban field operatives boast that large-scale attacks might not be needed to erode Western forces' sway, especially in rural districts where American troops were disliked and distrusted even before the Kandahar killings.
The article provides little evidence for the existence of these internal divisions. That such divisions exist is natural: within any armed movement, there is almost inevitably a spectrum of positions ranging from flexible pragmatists to pure militarists (similar to those which exist within the U.S. Congress). The militarist position may currently be the more rational option. Given the recent atrocities and fuck ups on the part of American troops, the Taliban may see the social context as favoring continued violence. Insurgents, after all, rely on social support in order to make military gains. Why give up fighting now? Take advantage of the outrage with the already unpopular occupation for one more fighting season and then come back to the negotiating table next winter from a stronger position.

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