It was the summer of 2001, and I had a front-row seat to negotiations designed to convince the Taliban to build a more inclusive Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Islamist movement, which was in power and controlled 90 percent of the country, had agreed to mediation with segments of the armed opposition, which was still denying the movement total control over Afghanistan. Midlevel Taliban envoys walked across the front line to meet with Karim Khalili, a representative of the country's Hazara minority and today Afghanistan's vice president.
This was Hindu Kush mountain warfare. The Taliban and the opposition were camped in the administrative centers of adjoining districts. But it took a day's hike to cross the mountain ridge in between. The white flag of the Taliban fluttered over their last check post, the green of the opposition over theirs. As a United Nations humanitarian coordinator, I required the cooperation of authorities on both sides to be able to move relief goods. In the process, I got to observe the sometimes subtle ways in which Afghans conducted their own wartime diplomacy -- the way that commanders deliberately kept a discreet channel of communication open to the other side as a sort of insurance policy.
The Taliban came to the talks prepared. They calculated they might be able to persuade the main Hazara party to break from the rest of the anti-Taliban armed opposition alliance -- divide and rule. The Taliban's discreet diplomacy was thus aimed at co-opting the Hazaras to their side. They started by proposing prisoner releases as a confidence-building measure, arranging for Hazara representatives to visit the jails in Kabul and Kandahar to compile lists of prisoners to be released as part of a putative deal. To run the negotiations, the Taliban chose a former mujahideen commander from Maidan Shahr, a town that sits astride one of the routes from Kabul into the Hazara country. He was a veteran of the war against the Soviets, a figure well-known to the Hazara leadership who could appeal to the Hazaras as permanent neighbors rather than temporary enemies.
The process achieved a certain level of success and was still under way when the 9/11 attacks occurred, precipitating an international military campaign against the Taliban. Eventually, the Taliban envoys sought Khalili's protection when their Islamic Emirate collapsed -- in a sense they claimed on their insurance policy. In other words, the careful cultivation of links across the front line set some limits to the conflict and ensured that no one had to fight to the bitter end.
Over a decade later, negotiations with the Taliban are again in vogue. Of course, now the tables have turned. The Taliban have become the armed opposition to a government dominated by their former enemies, men such as Khalili. A bewildering cast of actors stands by, ready to guide the Taliban to the table in order to hash out the future of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw. The movement's past history shows that it may indeed be possible to maneuver it to the negotiating table -- but after that point, the real challenges begin.
The negotiation with Khalili was just one of many examples of the Taliban coming to the negotiation table in the movement's 18-year history. On the positive side, the Taliban have negotiated and honored agreements. On the negative side, they also have a track record of ruthlessly using negotiation to gain tactical advantage, a convenient habit of referring all major issues to an inaccessible supreme leader, and an uncompromising espousal of maximalist demands. The Taliban self-image is one of toughness and directness, but their critics say they are tricky interlocutors. Negotiations with the Taliban at this point, therefore, promise to be a long, hard slog.
Most of the Taliban's experience in negotiations is with fellow Afghans. Throughout the 1990s, the movement frequently approached Afghan mediators to broker deals with mujahideen factions. The Taliban tended to see such political actions as complementary to their war aims. Much of the movement's original expansion across Afghanistan was achieved not by outright military assaults but by co-option and negotiation. Simply put, it persuaded opposing commanders to come over or step aside. This prowess in employing negotiating feints alongside a military campaign is an important part of the Taliban heritage.