The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


The parameters of engagement with the Taliban


Washington DC, 05/05/09


Distinguished Guests,
Dear Friends,

I am happy to be here for the launch of Mr. Tellis’ valuable and timely report on Afghanistan, “Reconciling with the Taliban: Toward an Alternative Grand Strategy in Afghanistan.” In light of intense debates about U.S. strategic choices in Afghanistan and high-level meetings here, this report is a very valuable addition to complete a road map for success in Afghanistan.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

As a preface, allow me to briefly talk about the recent trilateral summit that took place here in Washington last week. President Karzai and senior ministers of his government joined President Zardari and President Obama in Washington to deepen our dialogue for the implementation of the new strategy to overcome the current challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


We welcome the deeper U.S. involvement in trilateral meetings and the continued partnership pledged by President Obama and his very capable foreign policy team. Our relationship with President Zardari’s civilian government is closer than ever before, but we will continue to push for sincere cooperation of Pakistan’s security institutions. We have had 28 trilateral meetings involving Pakistan on military issues alone, with few concrete results. It is time to change.


We welcome the surge of U.S. troops, as well the expansion of the Afghan security forces. The additional 21,000 U.S. troops will ensure that there are enough capable boots on the ground in the short term to fight the Taliban, while creating a larger and better-equipped Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police will provide a sustainable and cost-effective long-term solution to Afghanistan’s security challenges. The Afghan National Army is to grow from the current 80,000 troops to 134,000 troops and ultimately to 250,000 troops to be able to properly secure Afghanistan. Similarly, the police will need to expand to 140,000 officers and gain improved training, discipline and equipment.


Of course, troops alone cannot provide lasting security and defeat the Taliban threat in Afghanistan. As Mr. Tellis notes, in order to achieve victory in Afghanistan the goal of the international community must be to build an effective state. To this end, we welcome and support President Obama plan to surge the number of civilians working in Afghanistan. We have submitted a detailed plan for a national civilian surge that would create a demand-driven vehicle to provide technical assistance in line with the needs and priorities of the Afghan government. Our plan addresses the issue of capacity-building and would help overcome the shortage of human capital in government ministries and institutions. It would also increase the government’s visibility and help reduce dependency on the international community.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Now I would like to turn to Dr. Tellis’ timely and insightful report. I completely agree with his fundamental argument on the need for clarity of objectives and consistency of message for the international community in Afghanistan. One of the challenges that we face is how to synchronize our diverse partisan messages that are intended for different constituencies. For instance, would it be prudent to over-emphasize an “exit strategy” while the main propaganda used by terrorists and the Taliban is to question the U.S.’s staying power in Afghanistan?


It is clear that Dr. Tellis has taken his experience in both academia and government and produced an report that is both founded in sound analysis of facts on the ground but provides clear policy options. I greatly value his prescription of the need for clear objectives, sustained commitment, and a stronger Afghan state to be able to deliver services and provide protection to the Afghan people.

There are a number of very valid arguments Mr. Tellis makes that I would like to highlight.


First, it is true that under the current security threat level any “reconciliation” process is premature and a weak policy option. Negotiation with the Taliban will succeed only if we talk to them from the position of strength. As long as they are perceived to be successful, they do not need to talk to us. For the Taliban, victory merely means destroying and disrupting. If we cannot effectively stop them from doing so, why should they talk to us?


Second, the Taliban are extremely unpopular and do not represent any ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Taliban brutalize and victimize the Afghan people, never providing a real alternative for governance, jobs, growth and development. Recent polls have found that the majority of the Afghan people – over 80 percent – see the Taliban as the main threat to the country. The reason that they remain present in certain parts of the country is that we, the Afghan government and the international community, are not present there. They have forced the population into submission. They were the government in Afghanistan for a number of years; the people known exactly what type of tyranny and terror their rule would bring.


Third, building institutions, especially the security forces, justice system and expanding the capacity of government institutions to deliver services is a vital component of any successful strategy for victory in Afghanistan and should not be seen as an alternative, but rather as the main pillar of sustainable security. We need to keep building up and strengthening the country’s young democratic institutions, and we will be able to do so if the government’s national civilian surge plan is fully implemented. Working “to build up Afghanistan from the inside out” should be amongst the U.S.’s primary goals. Providing its government with the ability to deliver services, security, justice and the rule of law should be a priority in helping decisively defeat the Taliban.

Fourth, contrary to Iraq, the link between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is very deep in Afghanistan. This assures that the idea that the U.S. can negotiate peace with the Taliban while still going after Al Qaeda is not possible, as Dr. Tellis points out.


Finally, that Afghanistan is not a “graveyard of empires.” Let there be no mistake – Afghans are a pragmatic, proud and sovereign people, but they are also extremely savvy and know that they live in a predatory and volatile region. They have been asking for the presence and support of the U.S. since 1978. The “graveyard” myth comes from a British misreading of history after the First Anglo-Afghan War and of a misunderstanding of who fought who during the Soviet Invasion. He pointedly writes, “the larger historical record simply does not bear out the claim that Afghanistan has always been an imperial necropolis.”


Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I would like to re-examine two issues in this comprehensive report.  

First, the argument that President Karzai is using the prospect of negotiation and reconciliation with the Taliban as an election-year ploy to attract votes is not strong. Reconciling with the Taliban is a risky proposition and is certainly not popular amongst women or the urban population, so doing so isn’t a smart electoral move. President Karzai will lose the vote of the majority of women and the urban population by even suggesting talks with the Taliban. Low-level talks with the Taliban have been going on for the past six years.


Second, I have an issue with the word “reconciliation.” I believe it is more accurate to describe the process of approaching the Taliban as “engagement.” We need to engage the Taliban at different levels. In order to do so we need to know who the Taliban are.


The Taliban can be divided into three distinct groups, each of which requires a different type of engagement. The first are the ideological Taliban – the Taliban with a capital “T” – those most closely associated with Al Qaeda. For those, the only engagement is military. The second are the mercenaries, or as Dr. Tellis refers to them, the “rent-a-Talib,” or those recruited by narco-traffickers and intelligence agencies. For them, the engagement involves political and financial incentives for buying them off. The third group is the largest – the paycheck Taliban, or the foot soldiers who are recruited because they have no other opportunities or are motivated by fear. Our engagement with them is with jobs, education and hope.  


To conclude, we need to engage the Taliban. However, the engagement will only succeed if the Taliban are denied sanctuaries and ideological, financial and logistical support in Pakistan and are convinced that they are losing on the battleground.


Thank you.