Brian Stewart: Forget the cynics, why the Taliban might just want peace

One big reason, Brian Stewart writes, is the growing strength of the Afghan army. Without the U.S. and its media around to report on the fighting, the next phase in this conflict could get a whole lot bloodier.

Despite the histrionics, it's much better to negotiate now, with the U.S. still around

An Afghan National Army soldier takes his position at the site of an attack on the outskirts of Kabul. The Taliban has hit selected targets in the national capital but has usually been repelled quickly. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

It's a fair bet that any future peace negotiations with the Taliban will start messily, progress slowly and stall repeatedly.

At best, such talks to devise a formal end to the Afghanistan war will produce, after years of torturous effort, a ceasefire that's as complex as it is fragile.

Sound rough? Well that's the optimistic view.

Pessimists dismiss the whole move by the Taliban this week to begin direct talks with Afghan and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, as little more than a publicity stunt aimed at winning international support for itself as a " government in exile."

Add in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's sudden change of mind on Wednesday, when he temporarily scuttled the talks — while demanding negotiations only be held inside Afghanistan and only after the Taliban reject violence — and that just confirms the cynical view that Afghanistan is doomed to an even bloodier war after NATO pulls out the vast majority of its troops in 2014.

The Taliban, this thinking goes, will wait for all foreign forces to leave as planned next year and then try to take over Afghanistan by force.

Well, there's no denying the pessimists have had a fair track record of predicting bad outcomes and continued woe in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

But in this case I've felt for some time there are actually good grounds for a more optimistic view.

As I wrote back in February 2012, there are real strategic reasons why the Taliban might want to negotiate a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan before the Americans and its allies depart.

Simply put, they may feel they have more to gain at a bargaining table than on the battlefield.

Nightmare brutality

There are several reasons why this might be the case.

So long as the Americans and NATO allies are still there, they will be able to exert pressure on the Karzai government to make the kinds of concessions that would at least bring about some kind of peace.

After they are gone, however, Afghan government rigidity may grow stronger.

What's more the Taliban leadership must have serious concerns about the new military realities they will face after 2014.

That's when the new Afghan army and security forces will have grown to 360,000 strong and will be far better armed, trained and led than in the past.

As well, the harder the fighting, the more likely government forces will merge with a reborn, fiercely anti-Taliban northern alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara Shias.

With fewer restraints on government actions by international forces and media presence, such fighting, in an all-out civil war, would likely take on nightmare brutality on both sides, complete with ethnic cleansing.

Should the army gain the support of a new, broad anti-Taliban alliance, the insurgents might not even be able to hold its own somewhat fragile alliance with other groups intact.

Well supplied with intelligence from its host nation, Pakistan, the Taliban will also know it's wrong to simply view Afghan forces as a collection of rag-tag units anxious to avoid combat.

Some are. But Afghanistan now boasts special forces with serious fighting experience and a growing number of reliable regular units.

It also now has its own heavy artillery and ever-growing air support (over 100 aircraft).

What's more, not all foreign military support is simply going to vanish by the end of 2014.

The Americans are currently talking about leaving behind a "bridging force" of as many as 15,000 "advisers" to provide close-air support, intelligence and logistics.

This kind of military backstopping will further limit the Taliban ability to manoeuvre sizeable forces in the open.

Tough decisions ahead

Another reason the Taliban might be more amenable to making a deal at this point is their own long immersion in the classic studies of insurgency warfare.

They are known to have spent years studying the works of modern guerrilla war masters such as China's Mao Zedong and Vietnam's General Giap.

They know very well that a successful insurgency traditionally only wins by moving through key stages: First by gaining early popular support in order to expand territory that can be held; then, larger scale probing actions; and, only as a last stage, do they attempt open warfare to try to seize victory.

The Taliban movement is nowhere near that final jump-off point and may never reach it. Its religious fanaticism, brutal methods of punishment and past record of suppressing women makes it the antithesis of a popular insurgency movement. (Though whether it realizes that about itself is an open question.)

These days it operates mainly among fellow members of the Pashtun minority in southern Afghanistan, and has virtually no presence in most of the larger cities apart from the odd terror attacks.

The actual fighters, believed to be only around 30,000, are extremely hardy and skilled, but limited in tactics. Roadside bombings, kidnappings and occasional ambushes in isolated provinces can keep a war going but without promising much hope of winning.

On top of the military realities, there are also political and economic ones that argue against relying on a protracted war to achieve the Taliban's original goal of an Islamist emirate.

The Afghan state is no longer the ruined husk it appeared in the early years of the war.

It's more urbanized, far better educated, and has seen its gross domestic product per capita increase fivefold in just five years. Women take up 27 per cent of the seats in its parliament and 30 per cent of government jobs.

For an Islamist regime, it's a much harder nut to crack.

That's why all countries in the region, including Iran and Pakistan, are now anxious to see the war over so they can exploit the immense economic benefits, including Afghan resource wealth, that peace can bring.

At least some in Pakistan's government have been nudging the Taliban leadership, which it still harbours within its borders, towards real negotiations.

These people want to end the overflow violence that disrupts Pakistan itself, and want to have better relations with the country's top aid and arms donor, the U.S.

So, with all this pressure, the Taliban may well figure the best it can win in a prolonged war would be, perhaps, one-third of a country, which they would then have to fight hard to hold.

So why not negotiate now for real power-sharing, including control in some provinces and on committees in Kabul, and then try to grow their influence from there?

It would have to give up some things in return, of course, like armed struggle and its lingering relationship with al-Qaeda, and pledge to honour the Afghan constitution, with its provisions guaranteeing women's rights.

And given the hard bargaining that is inevitable, no one should be surprised by any abrupt postponements, angry walkouts, temporary boycotts, surly resumptions of talks, and significant up-ticks in fighting even as negotiators meet.

These are, after all, peace talks. That's what negotiations have been like during the hard processes that ended modern wars, from Korea in 1953, to the Lebanon civil war in the late-1970s and '80s, and the Balkans in the late-1990s.

That's why optimists aren't so easily put off this time around.