The recent string of news coming out of the turbulent Afghanistan-Pakistan region raises an interesting question: what happens when leaders do not talk to each other? Or more importantly: will there be anyone left to talk to after the killing is all done? Despite the promising steps the fledgling government of Afghanistan has taken recently to begin talks about incorporating the Taliban into the mainstream governing process, the setbacks the negotiations have experienced are considerable – killing of the would-be leaders of the negotiations, perceptions of irreconcilable differences, general difficulties in dealing rationally with other human beings. Equally frustrating is an apparent lack of a coherent, uniform plan across U.S. government in rebuilding the war-torn state, even more than a decade out. Trying to combine the spiraling objectives of counterterrorism, countering violent extremism, state-building, peacebuilding, economic reform, agriculture reform, building good governance, gender mainstreaming toward equality, constructing rule of law, institutionalizing federalism, making progress to democracy – to name several – makes our collective head spin. So, the question surfaces again: what happens when leaders do not talk to each other?
In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Ury, Fisher, and Patton identify that “[i]nsisting that an agreement be based on objective criteria does not mean that insisting that it be based solely on the criterion you advance.” The simple point of their book, from which the title of this post is derived, is to say that the negotiators on all sides must possess the ability to recognize the relative truth behind each other’s positions, interests, and values. To do this requires a certain level of emotional, cerebral, and interpersonal intelligence. That is to say, just as you, a negotiator, would want to be possessed of a certain negotiating gravitas, so too would you want a counterpart who has the ability to ration, to empathize, to creatively brainstorm, to find a mutually-beneficial solution. In essence, it is in your best interest to have a smart individual on the opposite side of the negotiating table. Otherwise, it may be that your ‘opponent’ is unable to find clarity in cooperation and may try to scuttle a negotiation when it would only hurt him or her.
To bring it back around, as the United States moves ever closer to completely turning over the reins to the new Afghan administration, it will become important that the government in Kabul feels comfortable in its ability to seek out its own solutions, to self-determine in a sense. America will find it increasingly difficult to dictate what happens in the outcome of the Afghani political process. Therefore, it is in the U.S.’s best interest to cultivate a group of counterparts with which the Afghan governing coalition can negotiate, find solutions, and eventually live beside. It may be that the positions, interests, and values are strikingly different than what America perceives as the acceptable norm, but value transcription must be put aside in order for the solution for Afghanistan becomes a solution created by Afghans.
Do not take this as being apologetic for certain abuses in the name of peace: among other problems, the treatment of women and girls at the hands of Taliban governance was and continues to be atrocious, and must be addressed – just ask Malala Yousafzai. But when American officials excoriate other parties while representing a society where race continues to serve as a mark of socioeconomic status rather than simply a sign of species genetic diversity, it seems America needs to practice some house ordering.
It is impossible to know whether the two individuals who began this post, Mehsud or Haqqani, were gentlemen or even master negotiators. Maybe they were the spoilers to the party and indeed needed to not be included in whatever peace game that takes place in the coming years. But how would anyone know? As the field of countering violent extremism calcifies from a much softer science into a harder practice, it is becoming increasingly evident that it is possible to mold individuals, either into desirable citizens or those susceptible to radicalization. Negotiating skills can be taught; negotiators can be coached, shown that there is room for flexibility and creativity. It is only at the negotiating table, however, that such transformation can happen. Convincing someone of positive intent and genuine willingness is much harder when they are in the midst of shooting or getting shot. That is why so many crisis negotiations fail: trying to reason with a gun to one’s head is exceptionally hard, even for the most self-aware, experienced negotiator.
In the initial phases of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military and foreign policy experts engaged with Arab and South Asian counterparts to establish an American presence, build a military foothold, and begin to transition the governments from authoritarian rule under the Hussein and Taliban regimes to democratically elected governments. A grave mistake made in both theaters was disregarding the current presence of authority in both sectors, effectively ostracizing those who could help build power and ‘killing’ any hope of a more stable transition. In the documentary No End in Sight, filmmaker Charles Ferguson recounts through a series of interviews with current and former foreign policy and military officials the missteps of the Bremer transition team as it cast out, or “De-Ba’athificated,” the Iraqi government who had served under Saddam Hussein. In doing so, however, Bremer also disbanded all military units, some of whom were willing to organize around a new government and form an already functioning Iraqi military. Instead, hundreds of thousands of young Iraqi fighters were suddenly without work and were opposed to any initiative the American tried to accomplish in the new government.
Similarly, toppling the Taliban authority in Afghanistan brought with it a new opportunity to form an Afghani government. The Afghan Northern Alliance, otherwise known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (UIF), had ousted the Taliban from Kabul and taken over the administration of the country under Hamid Karzai. While much of the Northern Alliance force has been incorporated into the Afghan National Army, it is important to note that much of the southern part of the country was left out of the new government, particularly in the form of federal and regional management networks through the institutionalization of strongman administrations. It seems that the UIF failed to bring in some potential partners, paving the way for Taliban resurgence in 2006.
We do not have to draw lessons all the way from South Asia. A recent, much more salient example can enlighten us, one drawn from right here at home. The recent government shutdown demonstrated a general inability of American legislators to move past zero-sum negotiations. Both sides refused to see the brinkmanship in their own arguments, instead playing the political game of tossing the blame to the other side’s unwillingness to compromise. Public opinion has judged that the GOP will shoulder the majority of the blame for trying to couple the financial obligations and the full faith and credit of the United States with the roll out and funding of the Affordable Care Act, two issues which should have been taken up separately. Perhaps it is right that the American public penalizes such issue linkage by the conservatives, seeing as it defies the logic of a negotiation 101 course to try to extort negotiations from a Democratic caucus backed into a corner. The Republicans will pay in the primaries for the shutdown debacle – despite the fiasco of the roll out of the online platform of Obamacare – and the Democrats are content to sit back and watch the Republicans tear each other apart from the inside out. The midterm election cycle will pit mainstream Conservative candidates against their fringe Tea Party competitors, and if recent cycles are indicators, some ‘establishment candidates’ may fall.
Democrats may find joy in watching the Tea Party faction cripple the GOP, but it could come at a long-term cost. In effectively killing off the political careers of some of the moderate members of the conservative caucus by not reaching negotiable solutions and instead letting the ‘constitutional originalists’ run rampant through the legislature, the Democrats may be sealing the fate of American politics for years to come. These extreme members of the GOP seem content to let the government shutdown, because they profess that a government that governs best, functions least. The shutdown is exactly what these so-called leaders claim to be the solution for rolling back the progress the United States has made for some 230 years.
Admittedly, part of the problem – though it is also a beauty of the system – lies in the inability of a single individual to control the entire political game. It is harder to herd a group of Congress members through the legislative process than it is to corral a gaggle of geese. But the Democrats should not be so complacent in the implosion of their opposition. Again, it is necessary to have a worthy negotiating sparring partner; otherwise, the entire political system will suffer. By the time this realization comes to bear, the Democrats may find that the only other party at the table is one who does not wish there to be a table at all.
The laws of war do not translate directly into the art of politics and negotiations. In war, eliminating an adversary is crucial to tipping the scale of the battle in one’s favor. American military projection presupposes that a preponderance of force and force multipliers will equate to a hesitancy to engage in battle by opponents and an ability to dominate the combat environment when foes do take up arms. In negotiations, which are decidedly more artistic than the military’s ‘scientific’ approach, skilled opponents do not make for complete political death. It is true that some individuals should not be at the table and may be better off being removed from the equation. However, killing someone on the other side has rarely engendered feelings of gratefulness and willingness to come to an agreement, unless of course that individual was a persona non grata for all parties.
It is important to build up the negotiating ability of any side to an agreement, for it is the skilled negotiator that can see the other side’s viewpoint and facilitate mutually desired outcomes. The recent killings, real or figurative, indicate a need for greater understanding of these negotiating principles. Hopefully, the new accords in Geneva surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue and the upcoming talks for Syria indicate a growing understanding of the art of negotiation, and not a one-off of rare international negotiated peacemaking. If they are all hype and no bite, how many times must we go back to the drawing board to learn our lessons? Class dismissed.