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Don't count on a peace deal with Taliban

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
  • Peter Bergen says hopes of a peace deal with Taliban are unlikely to be realized
  • He cites nine obstacles standing in the way of a negotiated settlement
  • He says Taliban's Mullah Omar has taken extreme stands, resists reasonable compromises
  • Bergen says engaging Taliban in peace talks makes sense even if chances of a deal are remote

Editor's Note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation. His latest book is "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda." This article is based on testimony that Bergen gave Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Washington (CNN) -- Recently, both The Washington Post and the German magazine Der Spiegel have reported on meetings between U.S. officials and representatives of the Taliban that have taken place in Germany to discuss some form of peace negotiations.

Talking to the Taliban makes sense, but there are major impediments standing in the way of a deal.

First, who exactly is there to negotiate with in the Taliban? It's been a decade since their fall from power, and the "moderate" Taliban who wanted to reconcile with the Afghan government have already done so. They are the same group of Taliban who are constantly trotted out in any discussion of a putative Taliban deal: Mullah Zaeef, their former ambassador to Pakistan; Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, their foreign minister; and Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was the Taliban representative in the United States before 9/11. This group was generally opposed to Osama bin Laden well before he attacked the United States.

Bin Laden told intimates that his biggest enemies in the world were the United States and the Taliban Foreign Ministry, which was trying to put the kibosh on his anti-Western antics in Afghanistan. And today the "moderate" already-reconciled Taliban don't represent the Taliban on the battlefield, because they haven't been part of the movement for the past decade.

Negotiations with religious fanatics who have delusions of grandeur generally do not go well.
--Peter Bergen
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The key Taliban figure is still their leader, Mullah Omar, aka "The Commander of the Faithful." The title indicates that Mullah Omar is not just the leader of the Taliban, but also of all Muslims. This suggests that Mullah Omar is not only a religious fanatic, but also a fanatic with significant delusions of grandeur. Negotiations with religious fanatics who have delusions of grandeur generally do not go well.

Almost every country in the world -- including the Taliban leader's quasi-patron, Pakistan -- pleaded with Mullah Omar in the spring of 2001 not to blow up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan's greatest cultural patrimony. But he did so anyway. After 9/11, Mullah Omar was prepared to lose his entire regime on the point of principle that he would not give up bin Laden to the United States following the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon. And he did.

(Senior U.S. military officials tell me that it is their view that Mullah Omar is living at least some of the time in the southern Pakistani megacity of Karachi. President Obama has indicated he would be willing to launch another operation, along the lines of the one that killed bin Laden, if another major target such as Mullah Omar were located.)

Since his regime fell, Mullah Omar has also shown no appetite for negotiation or compromise. He is joined in this attitude by some senior members of his movement, such as Maulavi Abdul Kabir, a Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan, who said in January, "Neither has there been any peace talk nor has any of the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) shown any inclination towards it."

Second, the Taliban have had ten years to reject bin Laden and all his works, and they haven't done so. For this reason, Saudi Arabia, which has hosted "talks about talks" in Mecca between Afghan government officials and some Taliban representatives, has soured on the process.

Third, "the Taliban" are really many Talibans, and so a deal with one insurgent group doesn't mean the end of the insurgency writ large. It's not clear that even Mullah Omar can deliver all of the Taliban that he nominally controls in southern Afghanistan, because they are often fissured into purely local groups, many of whom are a long way from Taliban HQ across the border in Quetta, Pakistan. As Amb. Richard Holbrooke commented three months before he died, "There's no Ho Chi Minh. There's no Slobodan Milosevic. There's no Palestinian Authority." Instead, there are several leaders of the various wings of the insurgency, from the Quetta Shura in southern Afghanistan, to the Haqqani Network in the east, as well as smaller insurgent groups, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami in the northeast.

Fourth, the history of "peace" deals with the Taliban in Pakistan shows that the groups can't be trusted. Deals between the Pakistani government and the Taliban in Waziristan in 2005 and 2006 and in Swat in 2009 were merely preludes to the Taliban establishing their brutal "emirates," regrouping and then moving into adjoining areas to seize more territory.

Fifth, the arrest in Pakistan last year of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban No. 2 who had been negotiating directly with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, shows that the Pakistani military and government want to retain a veto over any significant negotiations going forward. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as certainly Pakistan's legitimate interests in the post-American Afghanistan must be recognized, but it also demonstrates that negotiations with the Taliban will not be as straightforward as just having the Afghan government and the insurgents at the negotiating table.

Sixth, other key players in any negotiations with the Taliban are the former leaders of the largely Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, who fought a bitter several-years war with the Taliban and who now occupy prominent positions in Afghanistan -- for instance, the minister of the interior, Bismullah Khan, and Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main rival for the presidency in 2009, who is -- at least for now -- the most likely candidate to succeed Karzai in the 2014 presidential elections. These leaders are not going to allow all they fought for to be reversed by a deal with the Taliban that gives them significant concessions on territory or principle.

Seventh, the several meetings over the past three years between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in Mecca and in the Maldives to discuss "reconciliation" have so far produced a big zero. A senior U.S. military officer dismissed these talks as "reconciliation tourism," while an Afghan official joked with me that in landlocked Afghanistan, "Everybody wanted to go to the Maldives for a meeting."

Eighth, the debacle involving Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour last year shows how much of a fog surrounds the whole reconciliation process. Mullah Mansour was portrayed as one of the most senior of the Taliban leaders, who was in direct negotiations with the Karzai government in the fall of 2010. Except it then turned out he wasn't Mullah Mansour at all, but a Quetta shopkeeper who had spun a good yarn about his Taliban credentials so he could pick up what a British government report characterizes as "significant sums."

Finally, and most importantly: What do the Taliban really want? It's relatively easy to discern what they don't want: international forces in Afghanistan. But other than their blanket demand for the rule of Sharia law, the Taliban have not articulated their vision for the future of Afghanistan. Do they envision a democratic state with elections? Do they see a role for women outside the home? What about education for girls? What about ethnic minorities?

While these obstacles show that reaching an accommodation with the Taliban is going to be quite difficult, that doesn't mean that it isn't worth trying. Even if peace talks are not successful they can have other helpful effects, such as splitting the facade of Taliban unity.

Even simple discussions about the future shape of negotiations can help sow dissension in the Taliban ranks, while if such discussions do move forward in even incremental steps, more intelligence can be garnered about what exactly is going on inside the shadowy Taliban movement. Also, getting the Taliban to enter into any negotiations means that they will no longer get to occupy the moral high ground of fighting a supposed holy war, but will instead be getting their hands dirty in more conventional political back-room deals.

Audrey Cronin of the National Defense University has systematically examined how and why terrorist/insurgent groups come to some kind of peace deal and has laid out some general principles about what that usually takes, which are worth considering in the context of Afghanistan.

First, there must be recognition on both sides that a military stalemate has been reached. (In the early 1980s the American academic William Zartman coined the term a "mutually hurting stalemate" to describe the moment when combatants will start considering a peace settlement.)

An important shift in the Obama administration's stance on Taliban negotiations was recently signaled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
--Peter Bergen

That precondition may now exist to some degree, given that over the past six months or so the Taliban have taken heavy losses in their heartlands of Kandahar, while the U.S. public has increasingly turned against what is already America's longest war. In December, 60% of Americans said the war was "not worth fighting," according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll -- up from 41% in 2007.

An important shift in the Obama administration's stance on Taliban negotiations was recently signaled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While giving the Richard Holbrooke memorial lecture at the Asia Society in New York on February 18, Clinton said that previous American conditions for talks with the Taliban -- that they lay down their arms, reject al Qaeda, and embrace the Afghan Constitution -- were no longer conditions that the Taliban had to meet before negotiations could begin, but were "necessary outcomes" of the final peace process.

Judging by the lack of media attention in the United States to this shift, this subtle but important distinction was probably also not well grasped by the Taliban, but it does represent a somewhat more flexible American position.

Similarly the Afghan government has now adopted "reconciliation" as its official policy, setting up a "High Peace Council" in the fall to help facilitate those negotiations, a body that is made up, in part, of a number of leaders from the former Northern Alliance, who are less likely to act as spoilers of a peace process if they feel they are a part of it.

Successful negotiations often require a capable and trusted third party sponsor. This condition seems also to be lacking right now: The Saudis are, at best, lukewarm about facilitating talks with the Taliban; the Pakistanis are not really trusted by any of the parties in the conflict, even by much of the Taliban; and while the United Nations may have some role to play in negotiations, Taliban attacks on U.N. personnel in Afghanistan last year don't suggest this avenue has much immediate promise. (Murmurings about a role for Turkey in facilitating a deal may have some potential, given that Turkey has an Islamist government and is also a key member of NATO.)

A peace deal also generally requires strong leadership on both the government and insurgent sides to force a settlement. Neither Hamid Karzai nor Mullah Omar fits this particular bill. Finally, Cronin explains that the overall political context must be favorable to negotiations for a deal to succeed. Here there is some real hope: While fewer then one in ten Afghans have a favorable view of the Taliban, a large majority is in favor of negotiating with them. Nationally, around three-quarters of Afghans favor talks, while in Kandahar the number goes up to a stratospheric 94%.

All that said, the bottom line on the Taliban reconciliation process is that nothing of any real note is currently happening. According to a Western official familiar with the record of discussions with the Taliban, the chances of a deal with the Taliban similar to the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkans war in the mid-1990s, or the Good Friday Agreement that ended the IRA campaign against the British government, are "negligible" for the foreseeable future. The official says that Mullah Omar needs his council of ulema (religious scholars) to sign off on a peace deal and there is "no sign of this right now."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.

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