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.

3 Responses to “Afghanistan: Who do you talk to and will they listen?”

  1. joseph warner

    Afghanistan: Who do you talk to and will they listen? | Left Foot …: Afghanistan: Who do you talk to and will … //bit.ly/eEogFG

  2. Rob

    “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”.

    I guess it depends on how you measure success, and whether ends justify means. Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan could have been disrupted by a handful of special forces and without tens of thousands dead.

    “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”.

    One can put this down to a failure of tactics or a failure of strategy. I would be inclined towards the latter. The mistake was to make the War on Terror a ‘war’ with an occupation of Afghanistan. When tens of thousands of ISAF soldiers still remained in country several years after 2001 and no miraculous transformation of Afghanistan had taken place it should not have taken any great leap of imagination to see this coming. The Taliban had few problems recruiting. ISI support of the insurgency was likewise unsurprising in the context of continued occupation and the impossibility of its success. They had seen all of this before, during the 1980s.

    The unending American quest to undermine Pakistan’s stability and pride has got to end if ISAF wants to get out. Stop violating the Pakistani border and killing civilians in drone strikes. Stop cutting deals with India and ignoring Pakistan; instead do a deal with the ISI and main Taliban factions then get the hell out. Any negotiation will necessarily be incomplete and likely not worth the paper its written on as far as ensuring Afghanistan is what we might want it to look like after we’ve left. It’s a political statement for the American electorate so Obama can withdraw from Afghanistan without being punished at the ballot box. Lets please not dress it up to be anything more than this. Biden wanted a draw-down last summer. Obama wanted to be re-elected. The army wanted to justify what it is that they do… they exist to fight wars. This war is killing more Afghan civilians than it could ever save on the streets of London or New York; the failed rationale for this war, and a morally bankrupt one to begin with.

  3. Andrew Gibson

    Patrick- Another thought-provoking article. I appreciate that, despite your scepticism, there are a range of possible outcomes in Afghanistan that are positive or negative (in relative terms).

    Whilst negotiated settlements have been more common than military victories since the end of the Cold War, negotiated settlements are far more likely relapse into violence than outright victory. Indeed, Afghanistan has a versatile war economy and there is no reason to assume any agreement or victory will be reached. If negotiations comes, the various insurgent groups would need to be offered something meaningful and/or distracting. Do you think a consociational approach or perhaps allowing the secession in the south and east would be the way?
    I appreciate your point about local power-brokers but I think the differences (ethnically and historically) between fighters and peoples from the north and south are so pronounced that they will not be ‘reconciled’, as such.

Leave a Reply