The latest news from both Pakistan and Syria has everyone gabbing again about the possibility of some fairly ugly peace talks starting.
The incoming Pakistani government is floating the idea of having peace talks with their local Taliban and al-Qaeda organisations – an idea which was at least taken seriously enough by those groups to now reject the idea utterly given a recent drone strike which killed Wali ur-Rehman, the “number 2” Taliban leader in the country, someone who was reputed to be a “moderate Taliban” (an interesting concept if ever there was one – sort of like saying “one of Torquemada’s more thoughtful Inquisitors”).
The idea of having peace talks with the Assad government is now also increasingly a topic of conversation. Despite the fact that we have no indication representatives of Assad will even come to the talks (outside of some claims to that effect by Russia, the Assad government’s chief arms supplier), many are confident these talks will both actually occur and reach some kind of positive end.
This article from a year ago explores another “should we have some ugly peace talks” topic – in this case, the question of whether to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan. I thought it might be useful to show this to you all, in case any of you are interested in exploring the question of what arranging this kind of peace negotiation involves.
You may be surprised to learn that the Obama Administration has actually been pursuing establishing such talks with the Afghani Taliban. The reason we don’t hear about this much is that both sides in any potential negotiation, between the Afghani Taliban on the one hand and the US/the Afghani government on the other, have strong preconditions that they feel have to be met before talks could even begin. The US and the Afghani government insist on the Taliban renouncing violence/terrorism, while the Taliban insist on all foreign fighters leaving Afghanistan. Since the Taliban hope the foreign fighters will leave Afghanistan first while they do not back down at all on violence and terrorism, there isn’t much that they would need to get by negotiating.
That’s basically the stumbling block. You negotiate when you don’t have a better alternative to a negotiated agreement. That’s why, for example, peace came to Northern Ireland only when both the Unionist and Nationalist paramilitaries got so exhausted and doubtful of defeating their sworn enemies that they could finally accept coming to the table. (The Northern Irish example, I think, is the archetype for these kinds of “ugly peace” negotiations – though some decent Unionists and Nationalists wanted to forge a peace based on ethical principles and mutual respect, the peace agreement only happened when those without either principles or the slightest sentiments of respect realised they were too both weak to go on fighting, and had better use what strength they had left to get some semblance of protections in a peace deal. This is the way I see “ugly peace” talks – they only work when the worst of the anti-peace schmucks realise they can’t win.)
At present, the Afghani Taliban leaders – the “schmucks” in this scenario – realise they have a better alternative to negotiating. (Of course, this assumes that its present lifelines in the northern “tribal areas” in Pakistan keep funneling them assistance. That could well change.)
Elsewhere, however, the possibility of fruitful peace talks, even with the ugliest of adversaries, is a bit brighter. The power of the schmucks is waning, and that might bring them to the table.
If Assad does send representatives to talks about Syria, it will most likely be a sign that such talks could be productive. Basically, what it would imply is that Assad knows he will lose if he continues to make war on his own people, but that he could save both face and some amount of power if he stops. At this writing, it still seems possible that peace talks in Syria are doable – but the test will be whether Assad chooses to send people to it. Having a possible arming of the rebels as a Plan B in case he does not also still seems sensible under the current conditions.
In Pakistan, it seems clear to me that whether talks between Taliban and al-Qaeda representatives and the Nawaz Sharif government occur and lead to positive results depends on how much damage the current drone war against Taliban and al-Qaeda sites in the northern “tribal areas” are doing.
Indications at the moment suggest that sooner or later, negotiations will happen not so much because Pakistanis are afraid of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but because the Taliban and al-Qaeda are on the ropes and can’t hope to continue any fight in the hope of actually prevailing. The New York Times reported today, for example, that the death of ur-Rehman may have provoked a schism within the Pakistani Taliban, as different factions proclaimed different replacement leaders, without the usual coordination by the group’s leadership council.
I suspect that none of that would be happening if President Obama had left Pakistani terrorists alone in the middle of nowhere, northern Pakistan, instead of bringing the war they started back to them. Probably, at some level, Nawaz Sharif knows that as well. Despite his opposition to continued drone strikes, I’m sure he knows that the talks he is promoting are now more likely to happen, not less. It’s over the top, this response from Taliban leaders, making a big show of rejecting talks because of the strike. But after the hype comes reality. The Taliban in Pakistan needs a deal.
That leaves the Afghani Taliban, for whom the prospects look a fair bit brighter – mostly because of the propaganda value offered them by Afghanistan still having thousands of American troops still stationed in the country. I don’t know that I have any action plan to do better than more than a decade of American military involvement provided, but there is one possible hopeful statement to make. If the two biggest centres of tyranny in the Arab/Muslim world are too weak to continue on as dominant powers, there is not much hope for another emerging. Hopes for a renascent Taliban in Afghanistan would be more likely to founder in the context of a larger Arab-Muslim world continuing to move toward democracy and pluralism. A democratic Afghani state, likewise, is more likely to survive in an Arab/Muslim world where it has regional allies, and not just overseas benefactors.