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Negotiation: By, With, and Through the Afghan People

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Negotiation: By, With, and Through the Afghan People

by Tim Mathews

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This submission is offered at this time to coincide with the upcoming panel discussion at the United States Institute of Peace, titled, Making Peace in Afghanistan: the Missing Political Strategy. The goal is to spur discussion and raise issues that have been absent in recent debates surrounding the prospects of a negotiated solution in Afghanistan. It does not offer definitive answers or advocate for a specific policy. Rather, the intent is to influence the debate by causing people to rethink assumptions about the appropriate actors to be involved in negotiations and consider how best to engage those actors.

Download The Full Article: Negotiation: By, With, and Through the Afghan People

Tim Mathews is a former US Army Infantry Officer, commissioned in 1999 at Marion Military Institute. He served on multiple deployments to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since separating from the Active Army in 2008, he has earned a Master of Business Administration from George Washington University and he is a Juris Doctor candidate in the class of 2011 at the University of Maine School of Law.

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Tim Mathews (not verified)

Fri, 04/08/2011 - 5:38pm

<p>I'll first note that Professor Serwer is either extremely gracious in taking the time to read my comment and respond or he overestimates the impact of my views on policy makers. I suspect it is the former, so I appreciate his response.</p>
To be clear, my objection was that I thought Professor Serwer "lumped me together with people whose views differ." He cited people who apparently advocate for a multi-faceted, multi-level peace process. My view differs. My view may be flawed, but a rejection of their view is not a rejection of mine.
<blockquote><em>This says a "prominent" role, not an exclusive role. If the latter, there are still many objections...</em></blockquote>
And that is fine. Those objections may be the issues that result in rejection or refinement of my view. As I note on page 1, I posted this not to assert "definitive answers or advocate for a specific policy" but to "spur discussion and raise issues that have been absent in recent debates" and "influence the debate by causing people to rethink assumptions."
<blockquote><em>Is it realistic to think the Karzai government and its provincial representatives will be comfortable with negotiations from which it is excluded, while ISAF and ANSF are supporting?</em></blockquote>
Perhaps not. And that, I think, more directly addresses my argument. I suspect negotiation conducted in a decentralized manner, on the initiative of tactical-level ISAF units and/or direct-level leaders, is a process that would need to be deliberately thwarted by Karzai if he objected to it. He would need to nullify negotiated agreements or forbid district leaders from engaging in such tactical negotiation, as he did with prohibitions on tactical units from conducting night raids.<br />
Would Karzai intervene to prevent or nullify mutually-acceptable agreements between villages and district leaders? I suspect no. But others have a better sense of that than I do.<br />
Side note: I'd also like to emphasize that my earlier comment noted areas of agreement with Professor Serwer. I find his arguments more persuasive and pragmatic than TCF's Task Force Report.

I urge readers to look at Mr. Mathews' original article, which I don't believe I misrepresented, as he says quite clearly:

"The purpose of this hypothetical above is to re-frame the discussion in a way that not only provides for, but assumes, a prominent role for local leaders, small communities, and the people who have the most salient interests at stake in this conflict."

This says a "prominent" role, not an exclusive role. If the latter, there are still many objections, but I'll need to read his post on Registan before going in to them.

Here I would only note that Mathews' now asserts "negotiation efforts should be decentralized and driven by local leaders (perhaps district level leaders) with assistance from tactical units of ISAF and ANSF."

Is it realistic to think the Karzai government and its provincial representatives will be comfortable with negotiations from which it is excluded, while ISAF and ANSF are supporting?

Daniel Serwer

Tim Mathews (not verified)

Thu, 04/07/2011 - 12:27pm

Daniel Serwer, former VP of USIP and current lecturer at Johns Hopkins SAIS, posted an op-ed in <em>The Atlantic</em> today ("<a href="… It's Time to Negotiate With the Taliban</a>"). He advocates for high-level talks, arguing that "negotiations are a good bet even if they don't end in a deal," while cautioning that negotiations "may be a good idea, but they are not a short cut out of Afghanistan."

The reason I mention his op-ed here is because he references my paper, linked above. He states:
<blockquote><em>[m]any advocates of negotiations therefore want to make the talks 'inclusive' -- bringing in not only top government officials but also civil society (especially women's organizations) as well as local leaders... As one advocate <a href="">put it</a>, negotiations must be run 'by, with and through the Afghan people' in order to work.</em></blockquote>

I think he has unfairly lumped me together with people whose views differ. After doing so, he goes on to ask rhetorically, "But is forging a peace deal 'by, with and through' Afghan leaders really possible?" The reason for the evident "no" answer is that, as he puts it, a "multi-faceted, multi-level peace process that includes women and minorities may be far more than the Karzai government is able to manage."

Perhaps that is what others advocate. It is not what I advocate. A centrally-managed, multi-level process headed up by Karzai, or national elites in general, is certainly a bridge too far. That is not what I advocated.

The purpose of this paper was to advance the idea that negotiation is a tactic and a wise way to employ that tactic is to engage in low-level negotiations on very specific local governance interests in order to slowly build coalitions of local organizations that erode Taliban strength and momentum and reduce the vulnerability of communities to a Taliban return.

I argued in greater detail in <a href="… recent post at Registan</a>, that negotiation efforts should be decentralized and driven by local leaders (perhaps district level leaders) with assistance from tactical units of ISAF and ANSF. Negotiation is a tactic and should be used to achieve tactical gains at the discretion of small unit (or local) leaders within the framework of a higher echelon intent.

To be clear, I am not overly optimistic. As I note in the SWJ paper:
<blockquote>"Given the poor reputation of the Afghan government, the lack of confidence in the ANSF, and lack of trust in ISAF, it is likely that the villages will be skeptical about the ability of the Afghan government to uphold its side of the bargain... It is possible that all negotiations break down completely because the villages have been bargaining in bad faith and are not willing to cooperate with the Afghan government against the Taliban...</blockquote>

Serwer, likewise, points out that high-level talks could also fail. But, he points out, <blockquote><em>A skilled negotiator will discover more in two days of conversation with an adversary than all the intelligence we've collected so far in ten years of war.</em></blockquote>
The possibility of learning more and, I would add, obtaining a conduit to directly influence the adversary's decision makers, are two reasons why high-level talks would be a good thing to engage in.

My disagreement with many advocates of high-level talks pertains specifically to the objective sought. Securing a peace deal by only addressing interests of Afghan elites and Taliban senior leaders will ignore the drivers of the insurgency (local dissatisfaction with absent or inadequate governance) and secure our withdrawal by prolonging the misery of ordinary Afghans. In addition to that disagreement, I argue that small unit leaders and local leaders should be more willing to engage in negotiations with local Afghans to reconcile conflicts between governance provided by the GIRoA and governance sought by villages.

If Serwer is advocating for high-level negotiations that entrust limited bargaining powers in the negotiator(s) (for example: the negotiator cannot negotiate constitutional changes or allocations of ministries), then this may be worthwhile for the reasons Serwer states. But if the goal is to empower the negotiator(s) with the power to secure a cessation of open aggression through power-sharing arrangements, then that would be deferring a crisis for a few years, rather than addressing the crisis we face today.

Tim Mathews (not verified)

Fri, 02/18/2011 - 2:30pm

One of the authors of the works I list in footnote 1 read this piece and privately noted to me that he (and others) do not advocate for negotiations that <u>only</u> involve high-level leaders of the GIRoA, ISAF, and Taliban. I hope that most readers did not come away with the impression that I was suggesting otherwise. Based upon this brief exchange, I feel that I should clarify 2 points.

1. The examples that I listed in footnote 1 are intended to offer several <u>recent</u> examples of very credible individuals taking the prospect of <u>any</u> negotiation seriously. I regard this as a positive development. I should also clarify that several of those authors have been proponents of negotiation for a very long time. I simply cited recent examples to show that negotiation is being widely discussed at this time.

2. Immediately <u>after</u> footnote 1, I stated
<blockquote><em>"... but most discussion evokes images of Taliban leaders sitting down with Afghan officials to hammer out an agreement for how they will share power to rule over the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan."</em></blockquote>
My intent was to make that observation more broadly, of all talk of negotiation, not just limiting myself to the works cited in footnote 1. Indeed, not all of the works in footnote 1 lead one to conclude that negotiation must only involve high-level leaders of ISAF, GIRoA, and Taliban.

As an example of the types of reports that I had in mind, consider <a href="… February 1 report</a> quoting a national security advisor to President Karzai as saying
<blockquote><em>"There is no real discussion or negotiation with the leadership of Taliban, just some contact between our people and Taliban. And we don't know if this contact has the backing of the (Taliban) leadership or not."</em></blockquote>
The article went on to point out that <em>"Coalition forces and the Afghan government have had a hard time finding senior Taliban figures who are willing to enter into discussions."</em> Most readers would take from this that negotiations will, or should, be solely conducted by high-level leaders and decision makers in each organization (ISAF, GIRoA, Taliban, perhaps Pakistan). My impression is that this reflects a widely-held and erroneous underlying assumption about the form negotiations should take. The purpose of my paper was to challenge this assumption.