Afghan Role for Taliban, if They Play by Rules: Amrullah Saleh

June 16 (Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. prepares to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan next month, Afghans are seriously considering what will come next for our country. As Hamid Karzai’s government steers reconciliation talks with the Taliban aimed at creating enough quiet for the Americans and the rest of NATO to justify departing, Afghans like me increasingly worry that we will wind up in a situation worse than the civil war of past years.

This is avoidable. The opposition to Karzai isn’t just a rejection of the current government, as the media have emphasized. We provide an alternative vision to Karzai’s way out of the status quo. It entails a complete disarming of the Taliban, an end to Pakistan’s practice of giving sanctuary to Taliban militants and a truth-and-reconciliation process for Afghanistan.

As things are going, the future looks grim.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization expects that a negotiated settlement, eventually, will end the fighting between Afghan government forces, on one side, and the Taliban and its allies on the other. Before extending an olive branch to the Taliban leadership, however, NATO is pursuing a military strategy to weaken the enemy. This involves brilliant special operations inside Afghanistan that have killed perhaps many hundreds of Taliban mid-level commanders. The idea is to break the leadership of the Taliban in order to get the group’s second and third tier to come in from the cold. Whether this plan works will depend on whether NATO succeeds in pressuring Pakistan, which supports the Taliban, to go along. Insurgencies don’t end when they are given sanctuary in a neighboring country.

Taliban Wants Arms

But the Pakistan-Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance wants a deal that would allow the Taliban to remain armed and mobilized so that it could again have the capacity to dominate Afghanistan, as both a political and military force.

In such a scenario, real political competition in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, would be either difficult or impossible. The Taliban would gain access to major funds through illegal taxation, narcotics trafficking, extortion, the sale of natural resources and the black market. These funds would enable them to sustain their organization and provide some services to their constituents. Pakistan would feel safe having its proxy control the border areas, limiting or blocking India’s access, and would use its influence with the Taliban to gain maximum concessions from the government in Kabul.

Abuse of Power

That government, today, is a conglomerate of small and big interest groups surviving through manipulation, abuse of power and criminal commerce. Its overt outreach wing for the reconciliation talks is the so-called High Peace Council. The council is largely a platform to keep the big names within the Karzai government under one tent and to give the outreach an artificial multi-ethnic face.

The council’s chief spokesman is Karzai, who has caused deep division within Afghan society by his constant, unconditional offer of alliance to the Taliban. For those who have fought for a vision of a pluralistic Afghanistan, a Karzai-Taliban alliance is a recipe for disaster. The Taliban’s return to positions of authority would raise the horrific specter of their previous time in power.

It is for fear of that outcome that voices for justice and permanent peace have been raised in Afghanistan. Many Afghans believe that to get to a negotiated settlement, the Taliban leaders involved in talks should be relocated to Afghanistan from their current locations in Pakistan, where they are protected by Pakistan’s intelligence service.

Monopoly of Force

In any agreement, the Taliban must be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated into society. The Taliban should be allowed to become a political force and be given every chance to play according to the script of democracy. But the Afghan state alone must have a monopoly on force. It isn’t permissible to allow the Taliban to become a Hezbollah-type entity within Afghanistan -- an armed state within a state. If they agree to just a cease-fire with Karzai or his replacement, it will only bring a deceptive stability that will prove short-lived.

Many years of war have wounded the psyche of the Afghan nation. Burying the facts will not help us heal those wounds. An internationally funded truth-finding commission should investigate human-rights violations, massacres and major crimes of the past 20 years. Knowing the facts would help the Afghan people reconcile with themselves. A full report may take years to compile, but the process would create hope.

In this scenario, Pakistan must stop its support of the Taliban. The U.S., which supplied Pakistan with $4.5 billion in economic and security aid last fiscal year, would need to offer carrots and sticks to ensure that country’s compliance. Pakistan and Afghanistan would sign an agreement guaranteeing the cessation of interference in each other’s affairs, both directly and indirectly.

This is the way out for Afghanistan, the Taliban, Pakistan, as well as U.S. and other NATO forces. A settlement that falls short of these minimums will only prolong Afghanistan’s agony.

(Amrullah Saleh was the head of the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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