September 17, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan: Prospects for Reconciliation

As of mid-September 2012, while outward appearances might suggest that the reconciliation process involving the Afghan government, the Taliban-led insurgency, and the United States that began in earnest in 2010 reman stalled, the reality is quite different. Progress continues in large measure due to the fact that these talks tend to make far more meaningful progress when they are out of the spotlight. Compromise will require painful concessions from all sides — and it is far easier for all sides to discuss concessions out of public view.


Public Silence Often Conceals Private Contacts

There have been numerous periods in the recent past when the media reported that process had been suspended, or even ended, only to be revealed later that informal talks talks had not only taken place, but substantial progress made. As a prime example, in late June 2011, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confirmed there had been several meetings that year between State Department officials and Tayeb Agha, a Taliban figure believed close to the group's leader, Mullah Omar. Later in 2011, unbeknownst to even President Hamid Karzai's government, the United States and the Taliban reached tentative agreement on the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. Similarly, it was only Pakistan's arrest of the second most powerful Taliban figure, Mullah Bradar in February 2010 that exposed the fact that the Afghan government and Bradar had been actively negotiating a political settlement to the conflict. Such negotiations have taken place even during periods in which either side has "cancelled" the talks because of attacks or actions alleged to have been committed by the opposing side.


Attention on the Fundamentals

Several Afghan and U.S. officials are privately optimistic about the prospects for an eventual political settlement because the underlying fundamentals driving such an agreement are relatively sound, including the following:

• International forces are drawing down at the end of 2014, but they are not leaving Afghanistan entirely. This is implied, although not necessarily spelled out, by the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement of May 1st, 2012, and by similar bilateral agreements Afghanistan has signed with major force contributors. Taliban leaders therefore realize they cannot "wait it out" until all foreign forces have withdrawn, and then succeed in toppling the Afghan political structure. Many Taliban figures, possibly including Mullah Omar, have already concluded they will not win this conflict militarily no matter how long they continue fighting.

• Most Afghans do not consider reconciliation with the Taliban and most other militant groups to be out of the question. Even Karzai refers to the militants as "wayward brothers" who are amenable to a rapprochement and subsequent reintegration into society. Many Afghan officials have tribal or familial ties to figures in the Taliban. And, the strictures imposed during Taliban rule are similar to those in place informally in many of the conservative, rural areas of Afghanistan, particularly the mostly Pashtun south and east.

• The willingness of the United States to accept a political settlement with the Taliban increased significantly upon the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Bin Laden's death definitively ended any Western concern that he could re-establish a base in Afghanistan. His death also caused several U.S. officials to again view the Taliban as they did in the early years (1994-1998) — as a conservative Islamist movement that could be dealt with diplomatically.

• The United States and the Afghan government need a political settlement. For the United States, a resolution of the conflict would ensure that Afghanistan remains stable even after 2014 when there will likely be only small numbers of U.S. troops remaining (perhaps 15,000) to train and mentor the Afghan security forces and conduct special operations against high value targets. For the Afghan government, a political settlement ensures its survival even without large numbers of international forces to keep it in power.

• Pakistan has become more amenable to a political settlement in Afghanistan over the past year. The Pakistan government has come to believe that instability in Afghanistan is providing safe haven for Pakistani militants to operate from across the border, and Pakistan has publicly backed the negotiating process.


Current Issues in Play

Even though all sides would benefit from an agreement, reaching a settlement will be difficult. For the Taliban and associated militant groups, such as the Haqqani network (see the September 12th IntelBrief), many of the younger, more militant commanders are likely to resist a political settlement. Some of these younger commanders, a number of whom have replaced older, more established figures who have been killed or arrested, believe that battlefield victory — meaning the toppling of the Afghan government and expulsion of Western forces from Afghanistan — is possible after 2014.

The United States, for its part, would need to convince the American public that a settlement did not compromise the strategic principles often cited as the driving force behind the war effort, or render the more than two thousand combat deaths in vain. Those principles include the establishment of an Afghanistan that respects human rights, protects the rights of women and minorities, and does not permit terrorist groups to infiltrate back into the country hosted by Afghan militants. Realizing these fundamental objectives is why the United States has demanded that, as an outcome of negotiations, the Taliban (1) end military activities, (2) accept the Afghan constitution, and (3) sever all ties to terrorist groups.

A settlement is perhaps most complicated for the government of Afghanistan. That government represents a coalition among all of Afghanistan's major ethnic and regional communities: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others. The Taliban, Haqqani network, and other militant groups are almost exclusively Pashtun; as a result, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders — most of whom are from the relatively calm north and west — fear a deal with the Taliban would strengthen Pashtun dominance and rollback hard won freedoms. Women's groups, which now constitute a strong constituency, understandably fear backsliding on women's rights in any deal. These divisions severely constrain the government's room to negotiate.


The Way Ahead

The negotiations thus far have remained largely limited to discussions of confidence-building measures and the modalities of future talks. There was agreement for the Taliban to open a political office in Qatar, to renounce ties to terrorist groups, and to release captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl. None of these steps has been implemented to date, although Taliban figures are operating from Qatar informally. In mid-2012, a senior Taliban figure traveled from Qatar to Japan to engage with Afghan government officials at an academic conference. Other militant figures met informally with Afghan officials at a conference in France. None of these meetings resulted in any announced agreement to hold more formal talks, but officials on all sides believe further contacts are likely.

The settlement process may have been set back somewhat in early September 2012 with the U.S. decision to name one militant group — the Haqqani network — as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). While the designation does not preclude the United States from talking to the Haqqani network, the FTO designation is likely to cause the group to resist entering into any negotiations with the United States or the Afghan government. Still, the Haqqani group is a relatively small part of the overall insurgency and it would likely sign onto any settlement agreed to by Taliban leader Mullah Omar.



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