Peace talks with the Taliban might help end 12 years of war in Afghanistan, but the radical Islamist group's objectives may be so extreme — and so hated by Afghans — that any compromise risks toppling the U.S.-friendly Afghan government and sparking a civil war, experts say.
"Talks are ultimately what is necessary to have a sustainable peace in Afghanistan," says Nora Bensahel, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security."For there to be peace," the Taliban has to stop attacking the Afghan government, agree to become part of it and accept the Afghan constitution, Bensahel says. The Taliban hasn't accepted it, but "that's part of what the talks are designed to try and reach."
The Taliban continues to rule with vicious brutality in areas it controls, garnering no trust with its chief rivals in Afghanistan's north, says Ryan Evans of the Center for the National Interest. Allowing the Taliban back into a government role as part of negotiations will probably lead to a war between Afghans once U.S. troops depart in 2014 as scheduled, says Evans, one of the authors of the report "Talking to the Taliban," published Thursday by the New America Foundation and the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.
"We're likely to see something similar to 1990's civil war," Evans says. "The big danger once we leave is Afghan security forces will fracture." The Taliban continues to fight to try to regain the country it ruled before the U.S. invasion of 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. A clerical movement of Islamists, the Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden and allowed al-Qaeda terror training camps to operate in Afghanistan.
The U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban and over 12 years, the coalition secured major population centers from Taliban fighters, whose leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, a wanted terrorist, is in hiding in Pakistan. The invasion paved the way for free elections and a democratic government. The U.S. government has had discussions for years with representatives of the Taliban. The Obama administration announced this week it planned to enter negotiations with the militants about reaching a peace deal.
Plans for State Department envoy James Dobbins to meet with Taliban officials in Qatar have been put on hold, however, after Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the talks. Karzai was angered that the Taliban leaders used the name of the country they once ruled, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and flew their former flag, while announcing plans to negotiate directly with the United States. Karzai says the Taliban's actions show it still claims to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan and it will seek to rule unfairly and brutally as before.
"The Afghan government is a house divided," Evans says. Powerful factions, especially among the country's Tajik and Uzbek minorities, oppose the talks because "they're afraid the Taliban will gain concessions. They're afraid of paying too high a cost to end the war." Since the talks have not begun, it's unclear whether the Taliban will demand control of sensitive ministries, such as Education, Interior, Defense or Intelligence. Two prominent northern warlords, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan, "have hinted they would rearm their forces as a hedge against what happens after we leave, with the Taliban in the rest of the country," Evans says. "From the beginning of the year until now, they've been saying things like this."
The country's police forces are likely to split along tribal and ethnic lines, and the Afghan national army, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and northerners, is likely to withdraw to the north, Evans says.
The Taliban has never renounced al-Qaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghan territory. It continues to rule its territory according to a severe interpretation of Islamic law that includes executing enemies and those accused of moral transgressions such as adultery, Evans says, citing what he saw while doing cultural research for the Defense Department in Afghan areas recaptured from Taliban control in 2010 and 2011.
Some Afghanistan experts say the gains made by the U.S. military have created an opportunity for compromise. "If we do not take the opportunity to negotiate a compromise, the result will be total defeat," says Stephen Biddle, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as an adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban agreed to talks in Qatar, it said it sought a "political and peaceful solution which ends the occupation of Afghanistan, establishes an independent Islamic government and brings true security," Biddle says. The Taliban said it does not wish to harm other countries. Those are signs that compromise is possible, Biddle says.
Biddle says he was in Afghanistan in March and talked to leaders of the Northern Alliance, fighters who sided with the United States during the invasion, and found that their opposition to talks with the Taliban is not as strong as it was a year ago."Skeptics about negotiations think the Taliban aren't serious, that this is just a sham," Biddle says. "I don't agree." By entering negotiations, the Taliban risks signaling to its enemies that it's weakened, Biddle says. "If they don't care, why are they bothering?"