Afghanistan: Who do you talk to and will they listen?

The issue of negotiations are far complex and nuanced than usually recognised, explains Captain Patrick Bury (Royal Irish Regiment), who served in Afghanistan.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan; a memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, described as “the first great book of the Afghan war”, is out now

Civil wars and insurgencies usually end with some kind of negotiated settlement. Advocates of negotiating a settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan argue it is the next logical step in the decade-long war. Yet the issue is far more complex and nuanced than usually recognised. That there are various trans and sub-national non-state actors operating in Afghanistan is widely known. What their allegiances are and whether they are reconcilable is less so.


Firstly, and of prominent importance given the reason ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) entered the Afghan theatre, is Al Qaeda. The pre -2001 Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan no longer exists. It has no ‘above ground’ presence as it did in the late 1990s and intelligence reports suggest fewer than 100 fighters operate in Afghanistan.

This indicates that the ISAF and US primary mission – “To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” – has been largely successful, and that Al Qaeda operational capabilities have been severely degraded in Afghanistan. Yet despite this, Al Qaeda will continue to remain irreconcilable to any negotiations due to their fundamental ideological beliefs. Thus, most security analysts agree that those members of Al Qaeda that can’t be ‘turned’ by the intelligence services must be destroyed.

The Quetta Shura Taliban were driven from power in 2001 in a relatively quick and low cost military operation reliant on special forces, the Northern Alliance and precision weapons. Due to lack of attention and resources, and a failure of military command to conduct incisive mission analysis, the Taliban surged from its havens in Pakistan across the border to conduct increasingly effective operations in Afghanistan in 2005.

The Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is widely believed to have played an instrumental role in the Taliban’s reconstruction as a way of maintaining a strategic hedge against the likelihood of ISAF leaving Afghanistan. Evidence suggests that ISAF operations have caused severe attrition of Mullah Omar’s organisation, but reconciliation with the government in Kabul remains unlikely unless blessed by him and the Pakistani security services.

The Haqqani Network is a strong, tribally-based group led by Sarajudin Haqqani in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and eastern Afghanistan. Traditionally considered a client of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and host to Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network is the most violent group facing ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

They also remain ideologically close to Osama Bin Laden and the neo-Taliban and therefore represent the largest insurgent group least open to Kabul’s peace initiatives.

Further complicating matters, the Haqqani network has developed ties with the Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) federation of insurgent groups that is aligned against the Pakistani government and its recent counter insurgency efforts in FATA. Again, the TTP would be classed as irreconcilable to peace overtures, unless support from the ISI ceased.

The same applies to the originally Pakistani-sponsored Lashkar-e -Taibi (LET), the group responsible for the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, who also operate in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-I-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) is the least significant of Afghanistan’s major insurgent groups. Hekmatyar has a hard-earned reputation for brutality for which he is widely despised. While it is unlikely that Gulbuddin himself could ever serve in the Afghan government, his organisation remains the insurgent group most open to eventual reconciliation with Kabul.

Criminal networks involved in drugs smuggling, kidnapping and illicit mining also exist, as do “accidental guerrilla” local actors. In theory, both these broad and disparate groups could be reconciled given the right initiatives at local level. The same goes for the warlords and corrupt officials whose primary goal is to maintain their localised power bases.

As outlined above, there are some prospects for reconciliation, but these remain hampered by the lack of cohesion amongst the insurgents, their differing ideological standpoints and their sponsors. As one commentator has observed, the Afghans are “perfectly comfortable fighting whilst talking”. Buoyed by the inappropriate statement of a drawdown date beginning in July, most groups are content to sit on the fence for the moment.

Meanwhile, ISAF will dedicate this year to continuing to reverse the momentum of the insurgency and create a position of strength from which to negotiate. A clearer picture of whether this is happening should emerge after the summer fighting season.

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