Strategies For Negotiating With 'Good' Taliban

The Obama administration has begun to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Taliban as military commanders in Afghanistan consider negotiating with Taliban who agree to peace. Vahid Brown, who teaches at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, talks with Renee Montagne about the differences between the two.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And next door to Pakistan, in Afghanistan, the Taliban is also a mix of groups with a varying list of allegiances. The Obama administration has begun to think of these groups as separate, distinct problems as it continues its review of military operations in Afghanistan. Here's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking this week to the BBC.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We are doing a much more careful analysis of who actually is allied with al-Qaida. Not everyone who calls himself a Taliban is necessarily a threat to the U.K. or to the United States.

MONTAGNE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reflecting on an emerging view from the Obama administration about the fight in Afghanistan. To learn more, we reached Vahid Brown of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. VAHID BROWN (Research Associate, West Point's Combating Terrorism Center): Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Would you break down for us very briefly what the differences are seen to be between the Taliban and al-Qaida?

Mr. BROWN: Well, primarily, the differences have to do with their ultimate goals. The Taliban is focused on what they view as national liberation of Afghanistan from foreign occupation. And, of course, al-Qaida has much more global ambitions, and they're not limited to fighting foreign forces in Afghanistan but include the intent to attack Western countries, as well.

MONTAGNE: Also, though, isn't it that the Taliban are considered to be homegrown, and all that implies? That is, they're local. They have families. They have a connection to the country itself.

Mr. BROWN: That's right. The motivations of individuals that are a part of the Taliban insurgency are very often locally driven. Their motivations have to do with their particular grievances in the communities in which they live, as opposed to members of al-Qaida, whose motivations are driven by views of an intercivilizational conflict between the Islamic world and the Western world.

MONTAGNE: So when the secretary of state or anyone in the administration speaks of, as she just did, not everyone who calls himself a Taliban is necessarily a threat, she would be talking to some degree about what's now called the good Taliban versus the bad Taliban.

Mr. BROWN: Um-hum.

MONTAGNE: Who would be a good Taliban?

Mr. BROWN: Well, in general, in essence, a good Taliban is a member of the Taliban insurgency that is amenable to reconciliation to the Afghan government and to participating in a political process as opposed to a violent process, as opposed to a bad Taliban, and I think kind of the national leadership, the hard core historical leaders, most of them based in Pakistan who have ultimate claims with regard to the illegitimacy of the Afghan government.

MONTAGNE: Sticking with the what you might call the good Taliban, when there is discussion of talking to them - which there is - in a practical sense, what does that mean?

Mr. BROWN: Well, there have been two ways of looking at this historically. One is a kind of a grand bargain approach and the other is a granular reconciliation approach. And the grand bargain approach would attempt to bring as much of the leadership of the Taliban organization into a comprehensive settlement with the Afghan regime. These efforts have, by and large, not been very fruitful. And the higher up you go, so to speak, in the chain of command, the more likely you are to find implacable elements of strategy and ideology that are unwilling to consider concessions, whereas the granular approach would attempt to identify reconcilable elements among Taliban networks on the local or regional level, bring them into a political process with the Afghan regime a piece at a time.

MONTAGNE: Well, what sorts of things would appeal to those people at that level?

Mr. BROWN: I think the two primary things that are driving the insurgency are lack of security and the perception of corruption and of unaccountability on the part of local and regional government. If issues like corruption can be addressed in some sort of conversation with segments of Taliban networks at that level, then there is some chance that a settlement could be worked out. It would have to be keyed to the ground state conditions, locality to locality. And those are very different in different parts of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Well, who can do this? I mean, are you talking here about the government in Kabul, or is this something that is part of the counterinsurgency being run by international forces?

Mr. BROWN: That's a good question. There is not a comprehensive strategy that brings all the actors, the ISF forces - the International Security System Forces, the United States, NATO, and so on and the Kabul regime - there is not one view of how to pursue reconciliation that unites all these actors at this point in time. Presently, military commanders in the field, American military commanders in the field do not have the authority to negotiate with the Taliban independent of the Afghan government. So who has the authority to do what? That is a question that remains to be answered.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BROWN: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Vahid Brown is an FBI instructor at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, where he's an expert on the Taliban and al-Qaida.

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