Risky Business: Talking to the Taliban

The US would like to ease its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 12 years of war. Shortly after Pakistan announced a plan to hold talks with the Pakistani Taliban, a US drone strike killed the group’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. With a violent record, the Pakistani Taliban has not shown interest in compromise or peace, and “the country’s labyrinthine military and political makeup and its often opposing foreign and domestic interests make it difficult to imagine how any Pakistani government can negotiate a deal that brings peace to a time of many terrors,” writes Paula Newberg, professor of government. She points out the Taliban are viewed in two ways: Some Pakistani politicians support the “conservative, anti-secular, anti-drone and… anti-American” side of the Taliban; others deplore the group as insurgents with no interest in good governance and who attack state institutions, mosques and civilians. Newberg urges preconditions before talks, including a stop to civilian deaths and respect for rights, and concludes that “Pakistan’s struggling democracy, and the state itself, is at risk.” – YaleGlobal

Risky Business: Talking to the Taliban

Fragmented, troubled Pakistan could risk democracy and credibility by proposing talks with the Taliban without tough pre-conditions
Paula Newberg
Monday, November 18, 2013

If one event crystallizes Pakistan’s helplessness in confronting its political future, it is the recent assassination-by-American-drone of Hakimullah Mehsud, erstwhile leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamabad had only just acknowledged its plan to hold “peace talks” when Mehsud was killed. Mehsud — with a $5 million bounty on his head, and thousands of civilian deaths to his movement’s credit — was immediately eulogized as the key to peace in Pakistan.

Or so it had seemed to the wishful among Pakistan’s politicians. But the country’s labyrinthine military and political makeup and its often opposing foreign and domestic interests make it difficult to imagine how any Pakistani government can negotiate a deal that brings peace to a time of many terrors. If it is unclear what it means for Pakistan to negotiate its political compact with the Taliban, it is also unclear what it would take to make any deal stick.

To the unwary, this would seem to be the Taliban’s moment.

More than 12 years after the fact, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, has concluded that ignoring Afghanistan’s Taliban post-2001 was a mistake — an observation that others, including United Nations Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, reached a decade ago.

Dobbins is looking for a way to negotiate an agreement so that the 2014 U.S. military withdrawal can look like a vote for harmony and stability. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is searching for ways to limit a crisis that is pitting majority pro-negotiation parties against minority, secular parties who see the Taliban as an unparalleled threat to society and security. Now, with Mullah Fazlullah, the new Taliban chief, opposed to negotiations, Sharif needs a new partner.

There are two versions of Pakistan’s Taliban tale. In the first, the Taliban’s authority reflects the purity of its worldview — at once conservative, anti-secular, anti-drone, and given the region’s history, anti-American. In this version, the Taliban is populist (with a military wing), with a civic constituency that favors building an Islamic state which presumably bears little resemblance to the constitutional Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This is the Taliban agenda currently embraced by some Pakistani politicians — whether for reasons of ideological compatibility, political survival, or both.

A second version views the Taliban as an insurgent movement comprising dozens of smaller militant organizations that use violent guerilla tactics to pursue jihad. This is the Taliban that attacks state functionaries and military installations — and kills civilians whose beliefs diverge from its own, or who are merely in the way. This Taliban has turned Pakistan’s western border areas into killing fields, and is now targeting urban centers with devastating results.

These two stories are actually one. For both assume the illegitimacy of the Pakistani state and seek change by threatening to dismantle Pakistan’s governance.

This was made clear during the run-up to the May elections, when Pakistan’s three avowedly secular parties saw their candidates gunned down. Other parties — including Sharif’s Muslim League, and Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice, which controls the area through which North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplies reach Afghanistan — were believed to have protected their candidates with promises to keep silent about these assassinations and — as current events seem to prove — negotiate the terms of Pakistan’s politics with the Taliban itself.

The complex morality of this tactical decision has led to a strategic conundrum. Sharif insists that talks with the Taliban are to be held within Pakistan’s constitutional framework — the very framework the Taliban rejects.

His decision appears to have two possible consequences: the Pakistani government will ignore an armed insurrection against the state — otherwise called treason; and it may be willing to renegotiate the hard-won constitutional principles ratified many times by Pakistan’s citizens.

Such policy incoherence has led the state to sponsor jihadist groups — without considering the consequences at home or abroad.

But blowback can emerge anywhere. Militants who have done Islamabad’s bidding in Kashmir and Afghanistan now have Pakistan’s civilians in their sights — Christians and Shias, children and educators, journalists and liberal political parties. Pakistan’s struggling democracy, and the state itself, is at risk.

Sharif is right to seek a civic solution to a problem that the security establishment and previous governments helped to create but cannot solve. To place violence above politics, however, by opening talks without preconditions, is to admit defeat before beginning to fight a long, difficult political battle. Powerlessness can only diminish in the face of principled politics — and for that to happen, Sharif needs, finally, to honor the campaign promises he made to Pakistanis that he would stop terror in its tracks.

What is the first step? Stopping the killing of civilians, before discussing anything else.

This sounds simple, but isn’t. If the Pakistani government stands for anything at all, it must stand for the sanctity of life. This is what the Taliban has argued in reverse, with cheers from its local political allies: that by allowing U.S. drone strikes, Islamabad is complicit in civilian deaths — and violates Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Sharif’s discussions with Washington about limiting drone attacks should help to counter these allegations — even as Mehsud’s assassination illustrates this problem vividly, and has caused a deep rift in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The Taliban’s own attacks on civilians, however, have so thoroughly violated the individual, political and moral sovereignty of Pakistanis that the militants’ criticism holds little ground.

And the second step? Respecting rights. When the Taliban took over the Swat valley in 2010, it offered to provide justice where the state had failed to do so. But its justice came at a high price: denial of rights for women, denial of education for girls, and the absence of free speech for everyone.

Surely the Pakistani state was, and is, far from blameless; its incapacities and haplessness created the political space that the Taliban now easily fills. But Pakistanis know from long experience that government by repression makes more problems than it fixes.

The contortions of Pakistan’s politics often make common sense a hard sell. For decades, the Pakistani military flagrantly used Islamist groups to pursue its policies toward India and Afghanistan alike. Many of them are now central to insurgencies that transcend their original boundaries — Afghanistan’s Taliban migrated to Pakistan, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba is now fighting in Afghanistan, and the sacrosanct border between them is little more than a line on a map. Even while holding tightly to its worn-out policies, the military that took credit for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan now finds itself facing Taliban gun barrels.

Surely this game has to end. If Sharif’s government is serious about settling disputes with the Taliban, it must be able to do so on constitutional terms that can save the Pakistani state. But if killing civilians and violating rights remains integral to the Taliban agenda, then no bargain will work — and talking about peace will mean nothing at all.


Paula Newberg is clinical professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. She is former director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and served as a special adviser to the United Nations and the United Nations Foundation.

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