Posted by: Christian | October 6, 2008

“Negotiating” with the “Taliban” in Mecca

The idea of negotiating with the Taliban has been posited by various people over the last year, usually left-leaning politicians or pundits. But now Mark Carleton-Smith, the UK’s highest ranking officer in Afghanistan has publicly advocated it:

…he added his voice to a growing number of people arguing that the conflict in Afghanistan could be resolved only through a political settlement that could include the Taliban.

“We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” Carleton-Smith said.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

So now for the predictable back-and-forth of the left saying Carleton-Smith is the first military man with any brains to speak up and the right calling him a defeatist.

My unspoken response to the people who have been advocating negotiation with the Taliban has always been:

  • what “Taliban” (Quetta Shura? Local semi-autonomous commanders? Hizb? Haqqanis? Others? all at the same time?)
  • and if answer is “Moderate Taliban” then please define who exactly they are.
  • don’t you already consider the Afghan government’s reconciliation program to be a form of negotiation?
  • do you really not know about the Afghan government communicating/negotiating with insurgents?

The reconciliation program aside, I’ve always believed that the Afghan government has been constantly talking/negotiating with various commanders, so I never know if the advocates for “negotiating with the Taliban” are ignorant of negotiations already taking place or if they are advocating and end-all withdrawal and inclusion-in-the-government treaty with the top Taliban leadership (and if so do they mean all the various notable leaders of the insurgency?). Of course, they never give those details. But I’m pretty sure that asking them their opinion of the difference between Hizbis in the government and Hizbis in the insurgency would draw a blank stare.

But back to this more current advocate of negotiating (with the “Taliban”). Carleton-Smith never mentioned the negotiations that are ongoing at the higher levels of the insurgency, but the New York Times discussed that in September. And now CNN has reported on the Saudi-brokered talks in Mecca:

The talks took place between September 24 and 27 and involved 11 Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials, a representative of former mujahadeen commander and U.S. foe Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and three others.

Hekmatyar’s group is named and most others are anonymous with the Taliban not being completely defined. Are we to assume that it is only Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura? Or is Haqqani also invited to the party? Also of note is the insistence of Mullah Omar that he has nothing to do with al Qaeda anymore. And the Saudi motivations seem to include paranoia of Iran:

Also, Saudi Arabia may fear that Iran could take advantage of U.S. failings in Afghanistan, as it is seen to be doing in Iraq.

Several Afghan sources familiar with Iranian activities in Afghanistan have said Iranian officials and diplomats who are investing in business and building education facilities are lobbying politicians in Kabul.

This meeting wasn’t really designed to accomplish that much in the first round:

The source described the Mecca talks as an ice-breaking meeting where expectations were kept necessarily low.

So now how do all those talking jihadi heads play these negotiations to their audience? Many of them have consistently denied that they will ever negotiate. Mullah Barodar, a second-tier leader for example:

“We reject an offer for negotiation by the Afghan’s puppet and slave President Hamid Karzai,” Mullah Brother told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.

He said Karzai had no right to negotiate. “He only says and does what he is told by America.”

That could just be the usual rhetoric: deny in public and then talk behind closed doors. But even for him that is ramped up from his previous softer position. Other similar public positions can be found where various leaders and spokesmen deny that they will ever talk to the Afghan government or their foreign backers about anything other than their eminent fiery defeat. Al Jazeera reports:

Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Al Jazeera that Carleton-Smith’s comments showed that the conflict could be ended only by foreign troops leaving Afghanistan.

He also reaffirmed that the movement rejected any compromises with the government, such as accepting ministry portfolios or taking control of the country’s southern states.

Does this one of several Qari Yusuf Ahmadis know about the negotiations in Mecca? And how will he spin them now? The various spokesmen and commanders will now need a new message. I’m guessing they will just say they are negotiating the defeat of western forces (or of course continue to deny the existence of talks). I would really like to be a fly on the wall in one of these meeting and hear what is actually being discussed.

I imagine that the various leaders of the insurgency are feeling increasingly confident about their position at the moment. It would take some serious pressure from their sponsors to get them to make any serious concessions that would be acceptable to the other side. And if they do make any of the concessions that the Afghan government wants, are they able to persuade their field commanders to go along with the deal?

But really, why would the “Taliban” seriously negotiate now when they obviously have the sense that they will be much stronger a year from now?  They will likely keep this line of communication open but offer nothing substantial from their side. Does a force on the rise ever honestly negotiate with a force that is at best stagnant?

Update: BBC now has a much more boring version on the meeting in Mecca.

Update #2: Some more insight on negotiating. The AP actually bothers to talk to analysts.

Update #3: The Long War Journal draws doubt on parts of the story.


  1. Denials from the Karzai gov’t and the Taliban that anyone talked in Saudi Arabia. The government says it wants the talks, but they haven’t happened yet, and the Taliban just say that nothing happened.

    Not sure what to make of that.


  2. I think you’re reading way too much into Carleton-Smith’s comments, and reading too much into them is what’s got the media and the punditry spinning so wildly out of control at the moment. He’s more or less reiterating the received opinion on the subject – sooner or later, the Taliban will have to face the choice” Talk or die.

    Apart from that, an excellent analysis.

    The only thing I would add is that Karzai is up for re-election soon enough, and he’s got to be seen to be making every effort to bring about a negotiated solution to the conflict – even if he understands that there won’t be one, at least not for a long, long time.

  3. Thanks for your comments Terry.

    RE: Carleton-Smith, I just wanted to use his comments as a segue into a discussion of negotiations. His comments were not significant given the pre-existing level of ongoing negotiations. Although the public diplomacy aspects were somewhat significant.

  4. […] degli addetti ai lavori di Londra, Washington D.C. e Bruxelles è il negoziato con i Talebani. Christian Bleuer [in] si chiede: * quali “Talebani” (Quetta Shura? I comandanti locali semi-autonomi? Hizb? […]

  5. I’m no Afghan expert but then again I have background in some things.

    Interesting about the Mecca venue for the negotiations. Apart from Mecca being an accepted reconciliation ground for warring Muslims I wonder if the Saudi’s are offering significant money as a sweetener.

    With $Billions in Saudi money spent in Afghanistan in the 80s and 90s I suspect some significaant money may be offered to the various Taliban heads. This may ensure a less painful withdrawal of US/NATO forces in the next 2 to 4 years – then the Taliban will be relatively free resume their usual extreme domination.

    This is in the overall context of the US-NATO being now too cash strapped to afford the Afghanistan occupation.


  6. The Independent confirms talks.

    They say Karzai’s older brother was there. He was just kicked out of the parliament. I guess payback for taking part in the Saudi talks …

  7. b

    Thanks for that Independent article. It puts a different perspective on Saudi funding:

    “There are also doubts on whether the Saudis are actually in a position to engineer a peace agreement. It is questionable how much influence they continue to have over the Taliban who no longer depend on official funding from the kingdom. Influential figures within the Saudi ruling establishment who are believed to be secretly funding Islamist movements are expected to continue doing so whatever the outcome of the negotiation process.”

    So it may not be that the “official” Saudi’s can exert power by turning on the funding tap. It is already on.

    Turning up the money flow or readjusting it may be the way to influence the Taliban and various other Afghan and international AQ factions.


  8. • “Talibana ” inona (Quetta Shura? Ireo mpitarika eo an-toerana azo lazaina ho mahaleo tena […]

  9. […] I ever find in any newspaper, and has written some valuable pieces on negotiating with the Taliban, in Mecca  and in historical […]


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