One of the smartest people in Washington, when it comes to Afghanistan, is Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, an establishment thinktank. For a while now, Dorronsoro has been writing about the increasingly hopeless war, and he’s proposed a plan for negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgents as a way out of the stalemate. Earlier this year, he wrote a paper for Carnegie called Afghanistan: Searching for Political Agreement. And on Thursday, Dorronsoro appeared at an event sponsored by Carnegie.
Dorronsoro starts with a bleak but on-the-mark assessment of the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the Obama administration. The US counterinsurgency force in Helmand and Kandahar can’t possibly succeed in less than five years, he said, if at all. Not only are things getting worse in the south, but conditions are deteriorating nearly everywhere in Afghanistan, including the northern provinces, where a “non-Pashtun Taliban” is gaining strength. “Everybody,” he said, “is anticipating the victory of the Taliban.” As a result, locals in areas not traditionally associated with Taliban control are making deals with Taliban-style leaders.
The problem in Afghanistan isn’t corruption, Dorronsoro says, but the sheer absence of central government in nearly all provinces, as governors and local potentates break away from Kabul. Not only are local politicians moving away from the government, but the insurgency is gaining momentum. “In more and more local districts, the Taliban are in charge,” he said.
Dorronsoro believes that the Taliban will negotiate a ceasefire if they’re promised a share of power in Kabul, and he believes that Pakistan—whose military intelligence service, the ISI, controls the Taliban leadership in its Pakistani hideouts—can force all, or nearly all, of the Taliban to the bargaining table. The result won’t be pretty, he predicts, since a coalition government involving the Taliban would lead to a more sharia-oriented state and to political losses for Afghan minorities and women. But he argues that the Taliban won’t want Al Qaeda to establish itself in Afghanistan again.
Unlike many analysts who argue that the Taliban is so diverse and fragmented that it can’t be considered as a party to serious negotiation, Dorronsoro argues the opposite. He says that the Taliban is a highly organized, fairly well-controlled organization that has installed unchallenged shadow governors in nearly all Afghan provinces and a logistical pipeline that crisscrosses the entire country. When the Taliban has power in certain areas, its leaders don’t fight with each other. “Where is the proof that the Taliban is divided?” he asked.
On the other hand, it is the Afghan government that may have trouble organizing itself as a negotiating partner, not the Taliban. “[President] Karzai has no political support,” he said. “He has no real power. Karzai doesn’t represent much in Afghanistan. He’s just a guy in Kabul.” He has lost whatever support he had in the north, among supporters of the former Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the 1990s. As a result, Dorronsoro asked: “Put the Taliban at the table. Who’s on the other side?”
Because Pakistan has so much leverage over the Taliban, for now at least, the Pakistani military and the ISI can bring the Taliban to the table. “We should be happy that somebody has leverage over the Taliban,” he said. “We should put the Pakistani army in the loop, because they are the only ones who can deliver the Taliban.” Dorronsoro said that the ISI exerts tight control over the Taliban, and he suggested that Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban chieftain, might even be holed up on a Pakistani military base. But even if the Taliban’s leaders are in Quetta or another Pakistan city, they’re surrounded, watched, and controlled by ISI. If negotiations start, those Taliban who don’t want to go along with what Pakistan wants can be turned over to the CIA in short order, meaning that nearly all of the Taliban will go along. On the other hand, Dorronsoro said, once the Taliban is back in Kabul, they’ll separate themselves from Pakistan as quickly as possible, since there’s no love lost between the Taliban leaders and the ISI.
Answering skeptics, there’s no downside to negotiations now, Dorronsoro said. If they succeed, great. If only some of the Taliban accepts a deal, and some doesn’t, that still should be considered progress. So, he concluded, “Let’s try a ceasefire and see if the Taliban is interested or not.”