Talking 'Bout Negotiation

The five big reasons why critics say talks with the Taliban won’t work -- and why they’re wrong.

The Obama administration has embarked on a fresh effort to get allies back on board with the goal of talks leading to Taliban reconciliation, following the Taliban's public acknowledgment of its willingness to negotiate. In a Jan. 3 statement, the Taliban indicated they would establish a political office in Qatar that will be used "to come to an understanding with other nations." Does this mark one of the most historic developments since the beginning of the war: the Taliban shedding its status as an insurgency and beginning its transformation into a state? In another statement issued Jan. 12, the Taliban reiterated its interest in increasing political efforts but added that this "does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration." So, which is it -- talk or fight?

The Taliban's contradictory words offer little assurance of its willingness to follow through on commitments made through formal negotiations. But we should not interpret official statements as signs of agreement; the Taliban continues to face internal discord over the war, with a pro-reconciliation faction often operating in conflict with those still seeking military victory. Expect more schizophrenic statements from both the Taliban who declared victory on Jan. 15 and the United States, as both sides feel pressure to show strong negotiating positions.

Likewise, the U.S. approach of "fight, talk, build," does not mean that the administration speaks with one voice. The tensions among American defense, intelligence, and diplomatic communities on the Taliban's willingness to negotiate are well documented. At face value, the military's reluctance to characterize Taliban intentions reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of its military campaign in Afghanistan. The risk-averse nature of the intelligence community often lends itself to the most conservative estimate possible -- rendering any possibility of negotiation impossible. Meanwhile, diplomats believe political talks are the only solution. The United States policy community remains stuck in an ideological debate over the Taliban's true identity: terrorist group, ideological movement, political entity, or insurgency? But time has run out for debates like this. Almost all parties, regardless of ideological bias or motivation, agree that talks are the only way out of Afghanistan.

If so, where do we go from here? How do we reconcile the major disagreements over reconciliation if it is the only way forward? There are five prominent and challenging reasons that officials and analysts use to say why negotiations can't or shouldn't work. Here's why they're wrong.

1. The Taliban have too much blood on their hands. Last week, Secretary Clinton acknowledged that the United States was considering transferring Guantanamo detainees to Qatar in exchange for talks with the Taliban. The deal would include former senior Taliban military commander Mullah Mohammed Fazl, implicated in mass sectarian killings prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. There's no debate that the Taliban's killing of Shiites is morally reprehensible. Furthermore, releasing a mass murderer to build trust for a peace process has been criticized by American analysts and Republican presidential hopefuls, not to mention Afghan and regional stakeholders. And that's for someone who's killed Afghans. The Taliban directly or indirectly killed more than 4,500 Americans.

According to the latest estimates from the Department of Defense, 1,761 members of the U.S. military died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. invasion, as well as 2,819 Americans killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, which al Qaeda leadership planned from the comfort of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As Senator Dianne Feinstein said, "the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with." Feinstein's remarks come on the heels of media reports on the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, which suggests little progress was made last year given the high number of casualties. Clinton would remind us that "you don't negotiate with your friends." No one expects the United States will find immediate friendship from the likes of Mullah Fazl and other detainees if transferred, especially after years of confinement in Guantanamo. However, with death being the only constant of the past decade, we can only presume that they, like the United States, are looking for a way out of the fighting.

2.  The Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists. Before losing power in December 2001, the Taliban were notorious for their human rights abuses, based on an interpretation of Islamic law that condoned public executions, the cutting off of hands as punishment for theft, death sentences for adultery, and extreme abuses of women. The Taliban's current position on these issues remains largely unknown -- but suffice to say it's probably not changed much.

So far, it appears that U.S.-Taliban exploratory discussions are not contingent upon commitments to human rights standards or changes in religious ideology, focusing instead on detainee transfers and the establishment of an office in Qatar. But the question of whether the Taliban are too fundamentalist or too bound by ideology will eventually affect reconciliation discussions: It's clear that Afghan and U.S. stakeholders, not to mention domestic and international civil society, will not accept America negotiating with such a repressive organization. But the Taliban's religious fundamentalism is not the war the U.S. has chosen to fight. The Obama administration maintains its policy that the basis of the conflict and the core goal of the U.S. "must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." There is no mention of Taliban ideology -- religious or otherwise -- so it should not be the basis of negotiations. The United States will have to find other ways, possibly after negotiations, to influence issues such as human rights that will continue to be important to its values as a country and a government. But for now, the Taliban's Islamic fundamentalism is the straw man argument against reconciliation.

3. The Karzai problem. President Hamid Karzai's inconsistent approach toward reconciliation continues to cause confusion, weaken confidence, and send the wrong messages. Even as the United States labeled its reconciliation policy as "Afghan-led" and announced its willingness to accept a Qatar-based Taliban office, Karzai voiced his opposition. Karzai's efforts to engage Iran and India send mixed messages to the United States and Pakistan respectively, who respectively remain concerned about Iran and India's growing influence in Afghanistan. Potentially most debilitating is the Taliban's view of the Karzai government as a "puppet" administration.

Karzai's government has not completely ignored the Taliban. It is known for its willingness to engage former Taliban officials and established the High Peace Council for reconciliation. But by playing all sides at once, Karzai has neutralized his own negotiating power. Why? Karzai fears that the United States and the Taliban will abandon him once both sides get what they want out of negotiations. His fear of irrelevance is further triggered by the lack of discussion on his future role. Karzai publicly stated his intention to step down at the conclusion of his term in 2014, but rumors abound that he is exploring measures to extend his time in power. He also cannot neglect the need to define and secure his political legacy and ensure his future safety and comfort, and that of his family. Karzai's blessing will be critical for reconciliation; talks can feasibly move without him but not for long. The American side's top reconciliation diplomat, Marc Grossman, drove this point home after meeting with Karzai this weekend in Afghanistan, emphasizing any formal peace talks would be between Afghans.

As long as Karzai's in charge of Afghanistan, he will have a heavy hand in what reconciliation looks like. All interested parties -- the Taliban, U.S., and even Afghanistan's neighbors -- will have to keep up their charm offensive with Karzai if they want talks to go anywhere.

4. The Taliban is in bed with Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan supported the Taliban. Its policy of support began during the second government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from 1993 to 1996. Bhutto tasked Interior Minister Gen. Nasirullah Babar with the responsibility of reopening routes to Central Asia through Afghanistan. Babar, credited as the "father of the Taliban," strengthened the Taliban movement with military, logistical, and technical support. In return, Pakistan's access to routes through Afghanistan became cheaper and easier, and it viewed strong ties with the Taliban government as a sufficient hedge against Indian influence.

Years later, after the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban leadership finds itself comfortably living in the safe haven of Pakistan. Or does it? If conditions were so comfortable and their presence so openly tolerated, the Taliban could easily set up a political office in Quetta, say, instead of Qatar, and proceed with negotiations from there. But the move to Doha represents the first public indication of the Taliban's true relationship with Pakistan -- strategic and political but not ideological, a circumstance that ultimately allows for greater flexibility in reconciliation negotiations.

5. The Taliban will never break ties with al Qaeda. Those who think Taliban links to al Qaeda are too strong to be broken should know that Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996 at the invitation of a leader of the Northern Alliance -- our (ahem) allies. Only after the Taliban assumed power did bin Laden develop an alliance with the fundamentalist government. For al Qaeda, the relationship with the Taliban is no more unique than its relations with other groups and individuals who benefit from offering the organization safe haven. They may agree ideologically on certain religious and political principles -- both are Sunni-dominated groups who view the United States as an imperial force targeting Muslim countries. But after ten years of war, a clearly diminished al Qaeda leadership no longer offers the Taliban legitimacy for a potential return to Afghan political life. Rather, it is the United States, the Afghan government and people, and the international community.

The top five reasons for why reconciliation won't work are rooted in the one big reason why the war couldn't be won through military means: it was ideologically flawed. Reconciliation is going to be tough if we never agree on why we're fighting the war in the first place. But critics of reconciliation are not just being disagreeable; in their defense, they are being realistic. Reconciliation will not show immediate results -- it may take years, even decades. For many of the governments involved, especially the United States, the war in Afghanistan has been one of urgency, where they must show tangible results to justify their involvement to constituents back home. In this spirit, as the United States plans to send troops home, what better time than now to turn to reconciliation, especially as the current outlook on security does not offer anything more tangible or immediate by way of success.   

John Moore/Getty Images


The End of the Win-Win World

Why China’s rise really is bad for America -- and other dark forces at work.

I have spent my working life writing about international politics from the vantage points of the Economist and now the Financial Times. Surrounded by people who tracked markets and business, it has always felt natural for me to see international economics and international politics as deeply intertwined.

In my book Zero-Sum Future, written in 2009, I attempted to predict how the global economic crisis would change international politics. As the rather bleak title implied, I argued that relations between the major powers were likely to become increasingly tense and conflict-ridden. In a worsening economic climate, it would be harder for the big economies to see their relationships as mutually beneficial -- as a win-win. Instead, they would increasingly judge their relationships in zero-sum terms. What was good for China would be seen as bad for America. What was good for Germany would be bad for Italy, Spain, and Greece.

Now, as the paperback edition of my book comes out, the prediction is being borne out -- which is gratifying as an author, although slightly worrying as a member of the human race. The rise of zero-sum logic is the common thread, tying together seemingly disparate strands in international politics: the crisis inside the European Union, deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relations, and the deadlock in global governance.

This new, more troubled mood is reflected at this year's World Economic Forum. In the 20 years before the financial crisis, Davos was almost a festival of globalization -- as political leaders from all over the world bought into the same ideas about the mutual benefits of trade and investment and wooed the same investment bankers and multinational executives. At Davos, this year, the mood is more questioning -- with numerous sessions on rethinking capitalism and on the crisis in the eurozone. The European Union is an organization built around a win-win economic logic. Europe's founding fathers believed that the nations of Europe could put centuries of conflict behind them by concentrating on mutually beneficial economic cooperation. By building a common market and tearing down barriers to trade and investment, they would all become richer -- and, eventually, would get used to working together. Good economics would make good politics. The nations of Europe would grow together.

For decades, this logic worked beautifully. But, faced with a grave economic crisis, this positive win-win logic has gone into reverse. Rather than building each other up, European nations fear that they are dragging each other down. The countries of southern Europe -- Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain -- increasingly feel that they are locked into a currency union with Germany that has made their economies disastrously uncompetitive. For them, European unity is no longer associated with rising prosperity. Instead, it has become a route to crippling debt and mass unemployment. As for the countries of northern Europe -- Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands -- they are increasingly resentful of having to lend billions of euros to bail out their struggling southern neighbors. They fear that they will never get the money back, and their own prosperous economies will be dragged down. Now that France has lost its AAA credit-rating, Germany is left as the only large AAA-rated country in the eurozone. Many Germans feel that they have worked hard and played by the rules -- and are now being asked to save countries where people routinely cheat on their taxes and retire in their fifties.

From the beginning of the crisis, Europe's politicians have argued that the solution to a severe crisis within the EU was "more Europe" -- deeper integration. Unfortunately, their interpretation of what this means is rather different and dictated by the singular nature of their national debates. For the southern Europeans, "more Europe" means Eurobonds -- common debt issuance by the whole European Union that would lower their interest rates and make it easier to fund their governments.. But the Germans regard this as a dangerous pledge simply to underwrite their neighbors' debts, long into the future. For them, "more Europe" means stricter enforcement of budgetary austerity from the center -- German rules for everybody.

Over the next year, this inherent contradiction is likely to cause increasing discord and rivalry within the EU as the political argument plays out against a deteriorating economic climate. Britain's refusal to go along with a new European treaty at the December 2011 Brussels summit led to screaming headlines about a continental divorce. But it is likely to be just a foretaste of things to come. The development to watch for in European politics will be the rise of political parties that are more nationalist in tone and that take a much more skeptical attitude to the European Union -- not to mention the single currency. Marine Le Pen and the National Front will do well in the upcoming French presidential election. Other rising Euroskeptic parties include the Freedom Parties in the Netherlands and Austria, the Northern League in Italy, the True Finns in Finland, and a motley collection of far-right and far-left parties in Greece.

Ironically, this intensifying crisis in Europe comes just at the time that the United States has decided to readjust its foreign policy to concentrate much more on Asia and Pacific. Although the "pivot to Asia" is being presented as a far-sighted reaction to long-term economic trends, it also represents an adjustment to a shift in the global balance-of-power in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

Put bluntly, the United States is taking the rise of China much more seriously. American preeminence, long into the future, can no longer be taken for granted. Nor can it be assumed that a stronger, richer China is good news for America -- as successive U.S. presidents argued all the way back to 1978. On the contrary, both as individuals and as a nation, Americans are getting the queasy feeling that a richer, more powerful China might just mean a relatively poorer, relatively weaker America. In other words, the rise of China is not a win-win for both nations. It is a zero-sum game. That belief is now feeding through into the presidential election -- and is reflected both in the protectionist rhetoric of Mitt Romney and in the soft containment of China of the Obama administration.

Romney has promised to designate China a "currency manipulator" and to slap tariffs on Chinese goods. These kinds of arguments have surfaced before, particularly during presidential elections -- but they are not normally made by pro-business Republicans. However, with America beset by worries about high unemployment and a spiraling national debt, old nostrums about free trade are easier to jettison. Missed in all the excitement of a presidential election is the extent to which protectionism is being intellectually rehabilitated in the United States. Respected economists like Paul Krugman and Fred Bergsten have argued that imposing tariffs would be a legitimate U.S. response to Chinese currency policies.

A similar shift is underway in America's military and strategic thinking. The Obama administration's much-ballyhooed Asian turn is essentially a response to the rise of China. According to the Economist, China is likely to be the world's largest economy (in real terms) by 2018. And Washington sees Beijing as already flexing its muscles, with increases in military spending and a harder-line in border disputes with a range of neighbors, including India, Japan, and Vietnam. As a result, the United States is seeking to make common cause with China's nervous neighbors -- bolstering alliances with its traditional Asian allies, while committing to strengthen its own military presence in the region. This move is all the more significant since it comes in the context of a plan to make deep cuts in overall U.S. military spending.

The Chinese are not wrong to see this policy as essentially one of "soft containment." They are unlikely to respond passively. A new Chinese leadership -- under pressure from a nationalist public -- might push back hard.

American-Chinese relations have long contained elements of rivalry and co-operation. But, increasingly, the rival elements are coming to the fore. This is not yet a new cold war. However, the state of relations between the United States and China -- the sole superpower and its only plausible rival -- are likely to set the tone for international politics in the coming decade.

In fact, the increasing rivalry between Washington and Beijing is an important contributor to the third major manifestation of the spread of zero-sum logic through the international system -- the increasing deadlock in multilateral diplomacy, from the World Trade Organization (WTO) to climate-change negotiations to the G-20's stalled efforts at global financial regulation.

In the heyday of globalization over the past three decades, big trade agreements were both a symbol and a driver of the strengthening of common interests between the world's major powers. The creation of a European single market in 1992 and of a North American free-trade area in 1994, the setting-up of the WTO in 1995, and the admission of China to the WTO in 2001, were all landmarks in the creation of a truly globalized economy. But the days of heroic new trade accords are over. World leaders have stopped even calling for a completion of the Doha round of trade talks; the repeated empty exhortations have become embarrassing. There have been, however, some small victories: At the end of 2011, Congress finally passed a free-trade deal between the United States and South Korea, and Russia was admitted to the WTO around the same time. But the WTO is now largely playing defense, trying to prevent a major new outbreak of protectionism. Officials there dread the prospect of being asked to adjudicate a U.S.-Chinese dispute over currency -- fearing that any such case would be so politically charged that it could blow apart the world trading system.

It is a similar picture in other areas where there were once high hopes for multilateral cooperation. The world climate talks were saved from complete disaster in Durban, South Africa, at the end of 2011 -- but few believe that the vague and vestigial agreement reached there will have any real impact on the global problem. The G-20's efforts to push forward with new forms of global financial regulation have also disappointed. The crisis within the European Union -- which has so long seen itself as the champion of global governance -- has damaged the whole cause of multilateralism.

A few months ago, I found myself sitting next to a senior EU official who turned out to have read my book. "My job is to prove your zero-sum thesis wrong," he told me. I replied that, as an author I hoped to be proved right -- but as a European and a human being I was hoping to be proved wrong. My lunch companion laughed and said, "That is too dialectical for me."

It is one of the nice things about the best EU officials that they are happy to talk to their critics, and comfortable using words like "dialectical." However, I fear that cultured technocrats will not do terribly well in the new era. A zero-sum world may summon up rather darker forces.