Make a Deal With the Taliban? Maybe
These guys changed sides.
The Afghan government and the Taliban are reportedly open to renewing peace talks, which is indisputably good news. The next question is, can they come to any useful agreement? The surprising answer: Maybe.
For a decade, there's been speculation that Afghanistan might negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Taliban after the U.S. withdraws, but it hasn't yet come to the point of real discussion. What's new is that the talks are now being pushed by Pakistan, whose security services have covertly aided Taliban forces and hosted their leaders, including founder Mullah Omar. And there are several reasons to hope Pakistan's change of heart is genuine, not the least of which was December's murderous attack by the Pakistani Taliban on a military school in Peshawar. Also, Pakistan's new army chief and director of intelligence may be more flexible on Afghanistan than their predecessors were.
What's more, Pakistan's new best friend, China, would like to see talks begin. Beijing's interest in this may be selfish -- it covets Afghanistan's mineral wealth, hopes to expand its sphere of influence westward and fears Islamic extremism among its own Muslim population. But it means that, at least in the short term, China and the U.S. want the same thing.
As for the Taliban: If it had hoped to march triumphantly into Kabul after the Americans' departure, those hopes are now dimming. Taliban forces on the ground have been unable to take any major cities, even in its southern stronghold. Meanwhile, with the war against Islamic State heating up, the U.S. is upping its presence in the region. Last weekend in Kabul, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the U.S. might slow its troop withdrawals, now scheduled to be complete by the end of the year. And perhaps Taliban leaders are listening to the conjecture that Islamic State wants to challenge them in Central Asia.
All these factors may be enough to convince the puritanical movement that power-sharing is its best option. And the Taliban does have enough popular support in southern and eastern parts of the country and in Kandahar, the nation's third-largest city, to expect some electoral success.
Another reason to think this may be a moment for fruitful diplomacy between Afghanistan and the Taliban is that the government in Kabul has grown more stable. In September, after months of rancor, President Ashraf Ghani and the man he defeated in last spring's election, Abdullah Abdullah, established a coalition government that promises to be far more effective than Hamid Karzai's corrupt regime was. Ghani has sought to improve ties with Pakistan and seems willing to consider negotiations with Taliban officials -- who are fellow Pashtuns.
It will be tougher to convince Abdullah and other non-Pashtun leaders that bringing the Taliban into government is the only way to save the nation. But given that Afghanistan, over the ages, has been a collection of largely self-governing areas, greater authority for provincial governors and other local leaders -- within the context of free, fair and regular elections -- might increase overall stability, even if some of those leaders are Taliban.
Ultimately, the U.S. may be the party with the greatest objections to a power-sharing deal. It would mean giving up on exporting tolerance and liberty to this part of the Muslim world, and rewarding forces that have been killing U.S. troops for 14 years. But if a pact with the Taliban would allow U.S. troops to depart without igniting a civil war -- and, in so doing, increase regional stability and help stem the rise of Islamic State -- it might turn the Afghan war into a victory.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org.