The past 36 years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about the advantages and the perils of negotiating with insurgents.
The Taliban’s track record of negotiation is replete with deception. In the past two decades, the Taliban has used negotiation more as a ploy to gain political and military advantages than as a way to settle conflicts.
Pursuing negotiation with the Taliban as an exit strategy, as the Soviet experience in the 1980s shows, is both unrealistic and dangerous. Instead, the United States and the next Afghan government should take practical measures to ensure stability in postwithdrawal Afghanistan.
On April 5, seven million Afghans defied Taliban threats and went to the polls to choose President Hamid Karzai's successor, and with no clear winner in the first round, the top two vote getters-former cabinet ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai-are readying for a runoff vote tentatively slated for June 7. Once the election is over, the next government will have to deal with a myriad of security and governance challenges as the international community's involvement in the country is shrinking.
Although the Taliban failed to disrupt the election process, the terrorist group remains a potent force that threatens Afghanistan's future stability. During the campaign season, both Abdullah and Ahmadzai stated that security would top their government agenda and that they would try to negotiate with the Taliban for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. While Abdullah cautioned that "there is no alternative but to confront" the radical Taliban groups militarily, Ahmadzai echoed a more conciliatory tone and pledged one-sided concessions to the militants, including freeing more Taliban prisoners and declaring a ceasefire.
Nevertheless, if history is any guide, efforts to negotiate with the Taliban will not just fail; they will also strengthen the terrorist group and further destabilize Afghanistan. To bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has unilaterally offered the group significant concessions over the past decade, including freeing thousands of its prisoners, promising its leaders a share in the government, providing monetary and political incentives to reconciled ex-combatants, and purging anti-Taliban and pro-West figures from the government. Far from accepting peace, however, the Taliban has reciprocated by stepping up violence, refusing to talk to Kabul, and maintaining ties with al Qaeda. Attempts by the United States and its NATO allies to negotiate with the Taliban have been equally counterproductive. As the United States and its allies wind down their mission and a new Afghan leadership replaces Karzai this summer, there is an urgent need to reassess the policy of negotiating with the Taliban and to take practical measures to ensure stability in postwithdrawal Afghanistan.
In fact, it is not the first time that a foreign power or the government in Kabul is unsuccessfully seeking a negotiated end to the war in the country. The past thirty-six years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about the advantages and the perils of negotiating with insurgents. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union tried to negotiate with the mujahideen to facilitate an orderly withdrawal of its troops and ensure the survival of its satellite regime in Afghanistan; between 1994 and 2001, the Taliban disingenuously used diplomacy as an instrument to further its military agenda and enhance its international legitimacy. Most important, Washington and Kabul must learn from their mistakes of engaging with the Taliban in the past decade, which have only exacerbated the political and security situations in the country. A political solution to end America's longest war is desirable, but a shortsighted deal with the terrorists could complicate the exit strategy of the United States and its allies, jeopardize the hard-won gains of the last decade, and inflame ethnic tension in the country.
Soviet Negotiation with Mujahideen (1985-1990)
The Soviet Union's decision to militarily disengage from and seek a negotiated end to the Afghan war was a reflection of both political changes in Moscow and security realities on the battlefield. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, the conflict in Afghanistan had become a stalemate, and officials in Moscow had begun questioning the feasibility of defeating the insurgency through a conventional war. Consistent with his "new thinking" foreign policy, Gorbachev decided to end the occupation of Afghanistan-which he called "the bleeding wound"-and urged his Afghan counterpart to reconcile with the opposition in a power-sharing government. Although troop drawdown did not begin until February 1988, Kremlin's ultimatum sent shockwaves across the Afghan government, whose survival depended on the Soviet military and financial assistance. On December 30, 1986, as a result, Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah announced a national reconciliation plan to rally public support for the state and negotiate a peaceful settlement with mujahideen.
To prove that his peace proposal was genuine and not an "empty, deceptive slogan," Najibullah unilaterally offered the insurgents major concessions, including declaring a six-month unilateral ceasefire, approving a new constitution that recognized Islam as the state religion, introducing an electoral and multiparty system, implementing economic reforms to respect private property, granting amnesty to opposition leaders, releasing more than 16,000 political prisoners, and offering the opposition half of the posts in a government of national reconciliation. The government also toned down its propaganda against the mujahideen, and state-run Radio Kabul began to call the mujahideen beradaran narazi(disgruntled brothers) instead of ashraar (terrorists).