Afghanistan: The Taliban is a Many Headed Monster

Few Westerners know Afghanistan and the tough business of negotiating with Afghans as well as Spanish-born diplomat Francesc Vendrell. A veteran United Nations negotiator who brokered peace talks in Central America and East Timor, he worked as the U.N.'s mediator on Afghanistan in 2000, and as the U.N.'s Special Representative in Kabul after the Taliban's collapse in late 2001. From 2002 until this summer he served in Kabul as the European Union's Special Representative. As some form of peace talks with the Afghan insurgency seems increasingly likely in the future, Vendrell, 68, who is now teaching at Princeton University, talked by phone to NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau about the prospective negotiations. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Should the United States and its coalition allies be talking to the Taliban?
Francesc Vendrell: Let me make two preliminary points. It's not only whom to talk to in the Taliban, but also who should be talking to the Taliban. In my view, the responsibility for talking to the Taliban rests with the Afghan government, which has to decide on a strategy and framework to talk to the Taliban. We internationals can help, assuming we agree with the [government's] approach. Next, one must distinguish between approaches, talks and negotiations. I think the first thing one ought to do is to have some approaches to the Taliban, starting with those [militia] commanders who are in the field in order to sound out whether or not they are closely linked to the Quetta shura [the Taliban's main command council which is headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar and is believed to be based in or near that Pakistani city] and to what degree they are pursuing an ideological battle, or whether they are fighting because of a series of local grievances that could and should be addressed by the government with the help of the international community.

Are there many of these non-ideological commanders?
We believe, though no one knows for sure, that many of the fighters are fighting for more localized reasons: anger at the government, lack of services, tribal alienation, lack of employment, land disputes, etc. One needs to look to that first. After that, one should decide whether one should talk [more formally] to these Taliban before [talking to] the top leadership. This is something that one needs to explore.

Can this process begin soon?
I worry a little bit that we are all talking too much. First we are talking about talking without, as far as I can see, doing very much. In my view it would be better if we were doing something and talking much less. Also going beyond the approaches to local Taliban commanders, the government and its international supporters should be talking from a position of strength, not from one of weakness. And I'm not sure at this point in time the Taliban thinks anything but that things are going their way. If so, and that's the way it appears, then we have to try to change this situation [of apparent weakness]. We certainly should not appear to be desperate in talking to them.

What's the next step?
We should think out clearly how far this should go, and what kind of concessions we may be able to make to the Taliban. And we should not be discussing this in public. If it's simply a matter of improving governance or addressing local grievances then concessions are quite feasible. More likely [the insurgents] will be demanding more.

Would they want to have positions in local government or strong influence in the south and the east of the country, for example?
That's something we would have to consider very carefully. We also have to consider how a lot of Afghans who want to see a modern and reformed Afghanistan would react. Finally the big question is how can we ensure that the Taliban will completely cut their links with Al Qaeda? At some point this is essential if the talks include the Quetta shura. It's not a sine qua non that in order to approach and meet them [they have to sever links with Al Qaeda] but it is something at some point we would need to ensure.

Do the Taliban see all this talking about talks as a sign of weakness?
First, I think we should not be saying we think we are going to lose in Afghanistan. We are now going through a very difficult patch because a lot of things that ought to be happening inside Afghanistan [such a good governance and controlling corruption] are not happening and of course because of the situation in Pakistan. But by talking as if we want to cut a deal with the Taliban because we are looking for the exit is not in my opinion the right approach.

What about Taliban demands to restore Sharia [Islamic law] and some form of Mullah Omar's defunct Islamic Emirate?
I think these are all issues that can be discussed eventually when and if formal talks ever take place. I would be personally opposed to some of these issues. But there should be no preconditions for talks, and those issues could be discussed if there were talks.

What about talking directly to the most powerful Taliban commanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani?
It's unclear if the Haqqanis are working under the Taliban leadership or whether they are a separate group. The same applies to [Afghan warlord] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It's a very complicated picture. It is much more complicated than when the Taliban were in power. Then you knew whom you were talking to.

Now it's a hydra-headed organization?
So it appears.

Hekmatyar seems to be the one insurgent leader who has called for talks with Kabul and the United States on several occasions, most recently last month. Shouldn't we be approaching him?
This is something the Afghan government has to decide. But he has a very bad record of not abiding by agreements. He has been one of the most bloody commanders in Afghanistan. He has committed a hell of a lot of war crimes, and one wonders whether one wants to bring a new warlord into the picture. I would have thought it would be better and more sensible to talk to the people [insurgent commanders] in the eastern and southern parts of the country and leave the Hekmatyar issue for a later stage. I can see how some people may want to talk to him. He blows hot and cold all the time. I don't believe he would abide by any agreement. I think his human-rights record is deplorable.

Can Pakistan be pressured into bringing the Taliban into talks?
I would imagine that is what the U.S., the U.K. and the Europeans are trying to do. There are three issues here. First, pressure [on Pakistan] is being applied and definitely will increase. Second is the question of whether the [Pakistan] Army fully controls the ISI [the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency]. And third is whether the Army is in a position today to carry out the promises it might give. As you saw from the recent discussions [on national-security policy] in the Pakistani Parliament, many M.P.s are wary of fighting the Taliban frontally. Plus the Army may not have the resources, capacity or the political will to carry out its commitments. One of the problems is that Pakistan appears to have lost control of the tribal areas and even other parts of NWFP [North West Frontier Province that borders on Afghanistan]. So this is not going to be easy to achieve, and certainly not in a short time.

Will another season of fighting make a difference in perhaps weakening the Taliban?
When I say talking from a position of strength I'm not talking only about bringing in more [military] forces. Unless that's accompanied by a series of major reforms in Afghanistan, that [U.S. surge] will not achieve much. But if between now and next year at this time a lot of things begin to change in Afghanistan in terms of less corruption, better rule of law and developing a professional police, then there are some grounds for hope. I think [Afghan President Hamid Karzai's] appointment of [Mohammad Hanif] Atmar as the new interior minister is a very positive step.

Do you favor Bush's, McCain's and Obama's plan to introduce some 23,000 more troops next year?
I don't think it's simply a matter of having more forces to fight the Taliban. I doubt that this will make much difference. Inevitably and unfortunately it will also mean the killing of more civilians, which will offset whatever military gains one makes. I think if one looks at some of the internal causes that have led to the Taliban becoming more successful than we anticipated, then military force alone is clearly not the answer.