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A Brief History of Negotiating with the Taliban

Should the Afghan government and the international community seek a negotiated settlement with the insurgency? Recently it seems that every second newspaper op-ed on Afghanistan carries the message that negotiating with the Taliban is the best or only option to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. So I would like to provide the historical context for any potential negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban, particularly its habitual pattern of negotiating in bad faith.

We'll limit this discussion to domestic and Pakistan-involved negotiations. The ongoing amnesty/reconciliation program whereby Talibs renounce violence and quit the insurgency was openly approved by US senators Bill Frist and Mel Martinez two years ago and recently endorsed by General Petraeus. That's no secret. In an earlier post I discussed that program as well as the exploratory talks (not negotiations) in Mecca between Afghan government representatives and representatives/proxies for as of yet undefined insurgent groups (rumor mill says Quetta Shura and Hizb-i Islami Hekmatyar, but no mention of Haqqanis or ISI). So, we'll delimit discussion to commitments made by the Taliban leadership, and their failure to honor them, a pattern that potential negotiators should keep in mind when considering making concessions in exchange for any promise from the Taliban (I'll skip Hizb in this analysis).

During the 1990s the international community learned quickly that negotiating with the Taliban was anything but straightforward. The negotiations between the Taliban and the UN, NGOs and other members of the international community are well known as having generally been a frustrating and unproductive exercise in futility. Consider Osama bin Laden’s pre-2001 quote: “Our Jihad has two targets. One is America and the other is the Foreign Ministry of the Taliban.”1 Those were the people with whom the international community often negotiated (and later pointed out as the "moderate" Taliban). The Foreign Ministry of the Taliban was not exactly known as an influential entity. As that is already well known, I’ll address my comments to domestic political negotiations with the Taliban leadership prior to 2001.

Early on the Taliban had shown an apparent eagerness to talk. They had negotiated at the individual level and taken many Khalqi communists into the fold. Hekmatyar, an opponent of the Taliban at the time, claimed that 1600 Khalqis had joined the Taliban, making them a large employer of "reformed" radical communists. The number may be exaggerated, but the presence of Khalqis was well known. However, the Taliban had very short term plans for them: they were needed for their technical military expertise. By 1998 that was no longer required (in my view, because Pakistan ISI officers had replaced them) and they were discarded.2 The Taliban certainly did not negotiate in good faith with these men at the individual level, a common tactic of marginalizing or discarding short term allies that is by no means confined to Afghanistan.

Speaking of former communists (but not Khalqis), Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader of Junbesh, was already wary of the Taliban because of their execution of the former communist leader Najibullah when they captured Kabul.3 This had a strong effect on him, as it foreshadowed what could be his fate if he surrendered or was captured.4 The Taliban confirmed these suspicions when they conferred death sentences on Ahmed Shah Massoud, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Dostum.5 This was at odds with the Pakistani leadership's strategy at the time to have Dostum remain in control over the north, with minimal Taliban authority over the area, in order to placate Russia and the Central Asian states.6 However, Pakistan’s attempts in 1995 and 1996 to persuade their Taliban clients to allow Dostum his continued autonomy in the north were a failure, as they refused any suggestion of sharing power there.7 As a result, Dostum joined Massoud, Rabbani, Karim Khalili, and others in an anti-Taliban alliance known in the Western media as the Northern Alliance.8

However, one Uzbek leader, Dostum’s second-in-command Abdul Malik, was persuaded to cooperate with the Taliban. This occurred after he had received guarantees from Pakistan, who sent in ISI officers and diplomats to Mazar to settle the final terms of an agreement (Malik was also motivated by the belief, shared by many, that Dostum was behind his brother’s assassination). The Taliban promised to put Malik in power in the north, until elections could be held, in return for his cooperation. He complied and allowed Taliban troops to go through his defensive positions and into Mazar, the de facto capital of the north, causing Dostum to flee the country.

The terms offered to Malik were never implemented. The Taliban reneged on their agreement almost immediately, and the power-sharing quickly morphed into an unconditional surrender. The Taliban refused to share power with Malik and instead attempted to assign him the minor post of Deputy Foreign Minister (see bin Laden's quote above). The Taliban did all this despite Pakistani attempts to persuade them to at least renegotiate, if not honor, their agreement. Everything in Mazar fell apart when the Taliban attempted to disarm Hazara militiamen, who knew, based on the previous treatment of Shia Hazaras, what to expect. The short version goes like this: Hazaras fight back, Uzbeks join in, Dostum returns, Taliban heavily defeated, Taliban return the next year, Taliban orgy of rape, murder and torture. The end result for Malik was the destruction of his forces and exile in Iran.9

This incident was an obvious final warning to any leader who thought that the Taliban would negotiate in good faith. Massoud took all this into account and never entertained Taliban overtures up until his assassination by al Qaeda.

Tragically for one leader, this lesson had been learned several years earlier during the battle for Kabul. In 1995 Massoud’s forces attacked the Hazara Hizb-i Wahdat positions, resulting in the Shia cleric and political leader Abdul Ali Mazari meeting with and attempting negotiations with the Taliban who were then advancing from the south. While Mazari was a guest or guest-turned-prisoner (depending on the version) of the Taliban, the Akbari faction of Wahdat showed that it was in no mood to surrender its positions and the Taliban had to engage a number of Wahdat militiamen as it entered the city. The sources vary on the story at this point but most agree that the Hazara Shia leader Mazari was killed while in the custody of the Taliban. Either you believe that the elderly Shia cleric was summarily executed, killed while attempting a Rambo-style escape or, as others maintain, you believe that Mazari was put on a helicopter bound for Kandahar, then thrown out when at a sufficient height.10 

What lessons does this hold for any prospective negotiations today? The Taliban leadership, if one can speak of a single entity (which one really can’t these days), does not feel the need to negotiate honestly with Shia “heretics”, former communist “atheists” and “hypocrite” mujahideen. I think it is safe to put foreign “infidels” and Afghan government “puppets” in that same category. And, most definitely, the Pakistani government has a horrible record of guaranteeing anything in regards to the Taliban.

As for contemporary negotiations, I’ve already offered my skepticism and gone into the details, as have Troy at Abu Muqawama and Josh Foust at Registan. You could also look to Pakistan’s negotiations with their Taliban to gauge what the “Taliban’s” strategy may be. Christine Fair’s excerpted opinion:

Pakistani negotiations with the Taliban have been “ratifications of defeat on the ground.” Without “any ability to verify” Taliban compliance. They were a joke, a separate peace, legitimizing Taliban leaders. In the tribal areas, “the so-called jirgas often held up as a pathway to peace have been fundamentally eviscerated” and replaced by religious and Taliban figures. “I’m dubious, especially in the tribal areas,” that negotiating with the Taliban in Pakistan could be productive, “since their goals are antithetical to the state.”

Most pundits advocating a negotiated political compromise never get beyond merely stating that this conflict cannot be won and therefore a political solution with the Taliban is required. The hypothetical details of any prospective arrangement are very rarely provided. An antedote to these superficial statements can be found in a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid. They advocate, as part of a broader diplomatic initiative, "a political solution with as much of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies as possible, offering political inclusion..." But they are cautious about propsective negotiations and any "guarantees" that may be offered:

The guarantees these interlocutors now envisage are far from those required, and Afghanistan will need international forces for security assistance even if the current war subsides. But such questions can provide a framework for discussion.

The entire article is required reading, as the analysis offers many qualifications. The most important, beyond the "guarantees," deal with the relationship with al Qaeda and the Taliban's "retrograde social policies." Clearly Rubin and Rashid are advocating cautious negotiations with elements of the insurgency. But many questions still remain. Some of which were discussed by Josh Foust. The technical details and "what abouts?" still need to be filled in.

The Taliban (Afghan and Pakistani) pattern of behavior will hopefully be in the mind of any negotiator who finds himself opposite a Taliban representative claiming to deliver on the ground in Afghanistan. Assuming those at the negotiating table can actually make their field commanders comply with the political leaderships' decisions, the Afghan government/coalition would be foolish to offer too much up front.

At the moment there is great speculation about exploratory talks and negotiations, up to and including a comprehensive negotiated settlement. Beyond the issue of the Taliban's history of neglecting to deliver on agreed terms is this question: why would a force on the rise negotiate honestly and seriously with a force that still appears to be on the decline? I don't believe in assigning a rigid pattern of behavior to any social/historical entity and then expecting predictions based on that to be completely accurate. Variables, sometimes unseen, can change. However, the recurring pattern of the Taliban failing to honor agreements should instil wariness in any potential negotiator.


1. Wahid Muzhda, quoted in Robert D. Crews (2008), ‘Moderate Taliban?’, in The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Robert D Crews and Amin Tarzi (eds.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 238.

2. Larry Goodson (2001), Afghanistan ’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban,  Seattle : University of Washington Press , p. 120.

3.William Maley (1998), ‘Interpreting the Taliban’, in William Maley (ed.) Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, New York: New York University Press, pp. 10-11.

4. Rieck, Andreas (1997), ‘Afghanistan’s Taliban: An Islamic Revolution of the Pashtuns’, in Orient, Vol. 38, No. 1, p. 137; Sreedhar, Mahendra and Ved (1998), Afghan Turmoil, New Delhi: Himalayan Books, p. 59.

5. Ahmed Rashid (2000), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, New Haven , CT: Yale University Press, p. 50.

6.  Maley, op. cit., pp. 10-11.

7. Ahmed Rashid (1998) ‘Pakistan and the Taliban’, in William Maley (ed.), Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistand and the Taliban, New York: New York University Press, p. 82.

8. Rashid (2000), op. cit., pp. 52-3; Sreedhar, Mahendra and Ved (1998), op. cit., p. 59.

9. Rashid (2000), op. cit., pp. 57-63; Amin Saikal (1998), ‘Afghanistan’s Ethnic Conflict’, Survival, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 114-126., p. 120; Maley (1998), op. cit., p. 11; Angelo Rasanayagam (2003), Afghanistan : A Modern History, London: I.B. Tauris, p. 153; Sreedhar et al (1998), p. 39. See also Human Rights Watch: The Massacre in Mazar-i Sharif.

10. Peter Marsden (2001), Afghanistan : Minorities, Conflict and the Search for Peace, London: Minority Rights Group International , p. 23; Saikal (1998), op. cit., p. 34; Rashid, op. cit., p. 35; Anthony Davis (1998), ‘How the Taliban became a Military Force’, in William Maley (ed.), Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, New York: New York University Press, pp.56-58.

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