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THERE comes a point in almost every insurgency conflict when full negotiations between the opposing sides become necessary and proper. In Afghanistan, that point has not yet arrived.
It is important to state just how dangerous the imposition of an unconditional deadline for the end of NATO combat operations has been in achieving a sustainable resolution to the conflict by the end of 2014.
By giving the insurgents and the Afghan people a fixed timetable, beyond which both know that NATO forces will no longer factor into their considerations, this decision has weakened the negotiating hand of the Afghan government.
The appropriate time for negotiations, in any insurgency, comes when both sides conclude that they cannot defeat one another outright and that continued conflict will take them no further. In other words, when stalemate is reached. The key objective for NATO forces must be to ensure that, when that point is reached, the Afghan government begins negotiations in the strongest position possible.
NATO seeks to achieve that objective, first, by providing the space and security within which Afghanistan’s economic and political development can take place and, second, by developing Afghan security forces to the point that they can continue this effort alone once international forces leave.
With a fixed withdrawal deadline now in place, however, starting full negotiations with the Taliban will be pointless. The insurgents and the Afghan people know the date when the strategic terrain will change, perhaps decisively.
The Taliban may declare their readiness to negotiate but this is likely a façade, designed to strengthen their hand ahead of their recommencement of a full offensive against the Afghan government once NATO forces leave.
Any negotiations that do take place must be Afghan-led and on Afghan terms, and they can only viably begin after NATO forces withdraw. Only then will the conditions emerge that truly convince both sides that there are no further substantial gains to be had from continuing their fight against one another.
Certainly, back-channel negotiations need to happen now; such negotiations are integral to any successful counterinsurgency campaign. Only a small proportion of Taliban insurgents are genuinely committed to the ideological objectives of their leadership. Most fight for more parochial reasons. When deciding whether to continue fighting, they will consider economic alternatives to conflict, but also how far they judge that they are on the winning side.
Given that the withdrawal deadline is now in place, NATO must strengthen the Afghan government’s position as much as possible by 2014.
Nobody is under any illusions that the Afghan government is a less-than perfect partner. Corrupt and often inept, it is a cause of great resentment amongst many Afghans. However, it is far preferable to the alternative. The Taliban is an organisation that throws acid in the faces of girls who go to school and strings up children it accuses of spying for the government. According to the UN, the Taliban were responsible for four-fifths of civilian deaths in Afghanistan last year.
The Taliban’s enduring strength is in its capacity to force acquiescence from a disproportionate number of Afghan people through fear. Just 6 per cent would favour a Taliban government, and only 29 per cent sympathise with them, according to recent polls.
From this less-than ideal situation, the Afghan government and NATO must focus on minimising the Taliban’s capacity to determine the country’s future beyond 2014. If they are to succeed, full negotiations will need to come later.