Foreign Policy Essay

The Art of Dealing with the Taliban

By Candace Rondeaux
Sunday, November 19, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: As the Trump administration weighs its options in Afghanistan, one of the biggest questions is whether to continue talks with the Taliban via its office in Doha—an office set up with strong U.S. support. Here the president's desire to reduce the U.S. role will crash into his goal of being perceived as tough on terrorists. Candace Rondeaux, the founding director of the RESOLVE Network and a long-time regional expert, believes Trump can learn from himself. By applying the steps in The Art of the Deal, she offers lessons for the administration.


The sentencing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to a reduction in rank and dishonorable discharge marks the close of his legal battle, but the controversy over the 2014 deal with the Taliban that led to his release will continue. Three years have passed since the Obama administration ordered the release of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for Bergdahl in a bargain facilitated by the Taliban’s office in Qatar. Many in Washington still question the strategic value of the bargain. With roughly 14,500 U.S. troops still on the ground in Afghanistan, some, including President Trump, have also begun to ask what the United States gains from allowing the Taliban to keep its office open in Qatar.

On the surface the answer seems to be: not much. According to Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, Jr., the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban have steadily gained ground on the battlefield and there are few signs that Pakistan is ready to challenge their safe havens in Quetta and Peshawar. Taliban forces control or are currently contesting more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. These are large setbacks in what continues to be a costly war, both in lives and treasure: The United Nations has documented more than 2,600 civilian deaths this year, comparable to the toll in each of the two previous years, and the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported at the end of October that U.S. spending on reconstruction has now edged over $120 billion.

Why should the Taliban be allowed to keep its address in Doha, and what, if anything, would the United States gain from doing deals with the Taliban in the future? This is the wrong question with which to start. As with any negotiated deal, sequencing is everything. What national security officials should be asking is: What has changed in the calculus of Russia, Iran, India, China, Pakistan, and the Gulf States when it comes to a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan? The answer is: a lot.

[T]he White House may benefit from applying a bit of the wisdom on offer in the 11-step formula laid out in The Art of the Deal.

Given the realignment of relationships among critical players, the White House needs to weigh the full range of risks that might accompany cutting off its line of communications with the Taliban in Qatar. Symbolic gestures like pushing Qatar to close the Taliban’s office in Doha might deliver short-term wins in Washington by serving to demarcate today’s White House strategy from yesterday’s. But it won’t do much in the long term to untangle the Gordian knot of regional interests that are likely to influence the outcome of any political settlement with the Taliban. Before taking any drastic steps, the White House may benefit from applying a bit of the wisdom on offer in the 11-step formula laid out in The Art of the Deal.

Step 1: Think Big

The Quetta Shura is a major stakeholder, but there are other players at the table. Let’s start easy and look at Russia. The Kremlin’s accelerating turn toward the use of hybrid warfare to head off perceived threats from the West has been well documented. This applies in Afghanistan as much it does in Syria and Ukraine. Gen. Nicholson has noted that Moscow is increasingly supportive of the Taliban, though this is difficult to verify. It’s worth considering the possibility that hardliners in the Taliban leadership in Peshawar will turn this aid to their advantage as they try to secure a political upper hand over those Taliban in the Quetta Shura that have backed the Doha office. As long as weapons from Moscow flow to Taliban fighters, hardliners also stand gain an even bigger advantage on the battlefield. Taliban gains on the ground would likely translate into gains at the negotiating table, affecting the outcome of any power-sharing arrangement with Kabul. In the bigger picture, it could also further shift the balance of power away from the United States and toward Russia.

Step 2: Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself.

Another possible downside is that the Taliban might go shopping for a new address in neighborhoods that are far less favorable for U.S. interests. Like Moscow, Tehran has been hedging its bets with selective support to elements of the Taliban for more than a decade. As evidenced by Taliban officials’ recent pilgrimage in May to the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, Beijing has also demonstrated increasing interest in opening lines of communication with Taliban leaders. Keeping the channels open with the Taliban in Doha creates its own upside in that it mitigates the risk that Russian, Chinese, or Iranian influence in a political settlement in Afghanistan grows beyond where Washington wants it.

Steps 3 to 5: Maximize options. Know your market. Use your leverage.

For longtime observers of the conflict in South Asia, the White House’s harder line on Pakistan is a welcome change. But, as with the Bush and Obama administrations, the Trump administration is likely to learn soon enough why public castigation of Pakistan historically hasn’t proven very fruitful. (See: Exhibit A, Pervez Musharraf, and Exhibit B, Bin Laden’s luxury manse in Abbottabad.)

A more effective way to put the squeeze on Pakistan for its support to the Taliban would be to impose individual travel bans and asset freezes against the bevy of retired Pakistani military officers and members of the Pakistani political elite who for decades have subsidized the Quetta Shura. Taking targeted action against those who support the Taliban, either through direct donations or indirectly through large-scale illicit smuggling of raw and imported goods across the Afghan border, is the surest way of maintaining leverage over Pakistan and the Taliban in the longer term.

Step 6: Enhance your location.

The Taliban’s relations with Qatar is not a motivating factor in the current Gulf States crisis in the way that some other, less frequently articulated issues, like Doha’s expansion of gas extraction operations in the North Field, are. But in the dangerous game going down in the Gulf right now, the Taliban office is a key card. Washington asked Doha to open the office in 2012 as a favor, and Doha, eager to enhance its position vis a vis its Gulf State rivals, was only too happy to oblige. Despite their public calls for Qatar to shut down the office in Doha, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia know well that Qatar is not in a position to take unilateral action on the Taliban.

Qatar’s rivals may still hold out hope that the Taliban might move their office to a more favorable Gulf locale, like Oman. But neither Riyadh nor Dubai can afford the potential domestic and international blowback if the Taliban continue to use their countries as a route to raising funds. The sums raised by the Taliban in the Gulf may not be huge, but given the way both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have tried in recent years to rebrand themselves as the forefront of moderate Muslim leadership against violent extremism, a failure to take decisive action on Taliban funding streams carries high political risks. The U.S. Treasury needs to continue to push all of the Gulf States hard on cutting off the Taliban’s financing capabilities.

Steps 6 and 7: Get the word out. Fight back.

Critics of the Trump administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan have been loud and clear about their concerns that the overemphasis on troop levels obscures the importance of diplomacy. They are right. The U.S. military can play its part in forcing the Taliban to the table, but political settlement requires hands skilled in international statecraft. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson needs to speak up more often about the role the State Department can and must play in delivering an end to the war. He and his colleagues at the National Security Council also need to dispel the notion that attrition on the battlefield is the definitive factor for bringing an end to the conflict. A good first step would be to assemble a team of experts whose sole mission is to pursue a negotiated settlement.

Steps 9 and 10: Deliver the goods. Contain costs.

Of course, delivering on the goods requires knowing what the goods are in the first place. It is commonplace when talking about the regional aspects of the conflict to allude to Pakistan’s use of Taliban proxies in Afghanistan as part of its fight its cold war with India. There’s truth to this notion. Islamabad’s anxieties over India’s backing of proxies in Baluchistan are also not entirely unfounded. The only problem with the old “strategic depth” saw is that it obscures the importance of other irritants in the complicated relationship between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi. Equally important are the as-yet unresolved disputes stemming from Kabul’s refusal to accede to Islamabad’s demand that Afghanistan officially recognize the Durrand Line as a firm border.

The ongoing disputes have escalated tensions between Kabul and Islamabad. The fuzzy status of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has increased friction over Afghanistan’s build up of irrigation systems and hydroelectric dams along tributaries to the Indus River. Another point of conflict stems from Islamabad’s failure to fully implement Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement, which has exacerbated ongoing tariff and transit disputes and driven Kabul closer to New Delhi, as evidenced by India’s recent delivery of wheat to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar. Kabul is not likely to accede to Islamabad’s demands while the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are left free to roam North Waziristan. Resolving these issues could go a long way toward ensuring that whatever deal is made with the Taliban is sustainable and cost efficient for the three central players in the South Asian conflict.

Step 11: Have fun.

Okay, none of this is going to be fun, but keeping the lines of communication with all the players open is the surest way of cutting a good deal.