Reaching out to the ‘undesirables’


Conflict resolution is not always a morally black-and-white business, as the example of the Taliban shows

Shedding its past hesitations, the Government of India has started an open, formal engagement with the Taliban who, by all accounts, will form the next government in Afghanistan. Until the recent India-Taliban meeting in Doha, India’s engagement with the Taliban was through secret channels (for several years now), open but ‘unofficial’ (i.e., when New Delhi sent two retired diplomats to a meeting in Moscow in which the Taliban were present), or quiet and unpublicised (an undeclared meeting of Ministry of External Affairs officials with the Taliban in Doha in June this year). Engagement with the Taliban is useful in both securing India’s interests in Afghanistan (to the extent possible) and to potentially moderate Taliban’s internal and external behaviour (again, to the extent possible).

Beginning the process

Should a Taliban government, when it gets formed, be recognised? Given that a Taliban-led government is a foregone conclusion now, the international community must only accord such recognition as part of a negotiated process, a process aimed at moderating Kabul’s new rulers. UN Security Council Resolution 2593, adopted at a meeting chaired by India, emphasising that Afghan soil should not be used for terror activity is a good beginning internationally. The international community should eventually recognise a Taliban-led government in return for guarantees that the latter will abide by norms governing terrorism, human rights, among others.


However, the question about engaging, and eventually recognising, the Taliban which has a terrible human rights record, and has literally captured power in Afghanistan through sheer force, has been widely debated from a moral perspective. So it might be useful to reflect on the various moral aspects of engaging with undesirable elements (terror groups, insurgents, etc.) in general and the Taliban in particular.

Geopolitics and morality

Moral judgements in the conduct of international relations rest on a slippery slope for several reasons. For instance, are moral judgements/prescriptions devoid of power politics? How much does geopolitical power shape the boundaries of morally acceptable/unacceptable behaviour in international relations? Consider, for instance, phrases such as ‘axis of evil’ or ‘rogue states’ used by past United States administrations against states they disagreed with or wanted to isolate. Notwithstanding whether one agrees or disagrees with the policies of the target states, the point here is that such framing is a product of the ability of the United States to dictate a certain global moral standard. As historian E.H Carr argues in The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939, “It is a familiar tactic of the privileged to throw moral discredit on the under-privileged by depicting them as disturbers of the peace; and this tactic is as readily applied internationally as within the national community.”

While all states use moral arguments in the pursuit of their respective national interests, it is the moral logic used by the powerful states or coalitions that tend to win over the weaker ones, thereby becoming the standards of behaviour. Put differently, morality is often a product of power even though there are other sources of morality than just power. Arguments stemming from moral universalism should, therefore, be challenged not only because they are patronising, but also because crude national interests often masquerade as moral universalism. Moral universalism may be desirable and even useful in certain contexts and for certain purposes, but it must be viewed with a critical eye. At the same time, one must also be careful not to fall victim to extreme arguments from moral relativism. Indeed, a healthy conversation between universalism and relativism could produce politically useful moral arguments. In short, moral questions governing the behaviour of states cannot be divorced from the geopolitical power and location of those states.


Range of ‘undesirables’

The second question is who the rightful object of our moral opprobrium should be. Should they include only non-state actors and individuals, or also states? In general, there are degrees of behaviour that are generally considered reprehensible — ranging from freedom struggle, insurgency, state-sponsored terror to terrorist violence. While deciding to condemn, we routinely use a selective application of morality. Let us take the example of the Taliban. They have an irrefutable history of indulging in terrorist violence, human rights violations (especially those of women), and religious intolerance. But so have many countries with an equally dishonourable history of violent behaviour and proxy wars. Whether those states are held accountable or not depends on essentially two factors: their military power to dissuade potential discipliners (North Korea is a good example), and their ability to justify their actions in a ‘morally acceptable’ manner. Legitimacy and sovereignty accorded to states provide them with an added layer of protection.

The point here is about how we routinely single out certain actors as fit cases of our moral opprobrium which is a function of power and geopolitics. The Taliban’s culpability is beyond doubt, as is that of many states. But why add another entity (Taliban) to the mix of powerful wrong-doers, you might ask. Here is why.

The possibility of potential state socialisation is why we must engage with organisations we disagree with. There are many examples of individuals and organisations shunning violence and joining mainstream politics as a result of negotiated settlements, power sharing, or simply because of state socialisation (the process of learning the international political culture and how to live within its normative boundaries). Put differently, we engage violent outfits in the hope that the process of conflict resolution may change them; states are potentially more amenable to reason and normative arguments especially when they socialise with their peers which forces them to ‘be like a state’.

Let us take the case of the Taliban again: military force could not defeat them, and given the suboptimal performance of sanctions (i.e., Iran, North Korea, Cuba, etc.), what options does the international community have when it comes to dealing with the Taliban? While engaging with the Taliban may or may not nudge them to moderate their behaviour, given the absence of other options, the international community might as well engage them to potentially socialise them into behaving like a normal state. Let me put that argument somewhat differently. We have three choices now vis-à-vis the Taliban: continue to militarily fight the Taliban, isolate and sanction the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, or engage and socialise them. The U.S.-led forces tried the first option for two decades without success, and the second option is what we used from 1996 to 2001 which led to disastrous consequences. So, we are basically left with option three.

The point of diplomacy, after all, is also to engage with the undesirables to try and change their positions. As a matter of fact, entities, individuals and states do change as a result of sustained negotiations. Whether or not legitimacy and recognition will temper an outfit with a violent past like the Taliban is indeed a challenging question. But one will have to make a call based on available alternatives and potential outcomes; not based on quixotic notions of moral universalism.

There are serious moral questions being raised about New Delhi’s recent outreach to the Taliban. Critics have argued that it is morally reprehensible for India to engage with a violent outfit such as the Taliban just because they are on the verge of statehood. While I do appreciate the moral logic of such criticism, let us keep in mind that international politics is not a site of perfect moral choices. More so, moral choices are also a product of geopolitical contexts and the historical location of a country. For India, located where it is — amidst a geostrategically challenging environment — its ability to make a ‘morally perfect’ choice vis-à-vis the Taliban is rather limited. It is imperative for New Delhi, therefore, to make an already bad situation somewhat better by engaging with an entity it otherwise would not have desired to engage.


A difficult art

Finally, there is a larger argument for reaching out to undesirable/rogue elements — to build peace and resolve conflicts. Notwithstanding what they say, democratic governments have routinely negotiated with terrorists, secretly or openly. Consider examples from the British government’s secret talks with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) while the IRA was still carrying out attacks against the U.K., to the Spanish government’s talks with the Basque Homeland and Freedom even after the latter’s violence killing civilians, to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-Sri Lankan government negotiations in the 2000s. Talking to the undesirables is a time-tested phenomenon. More importantly, peace-building is not always a morally black-and-white business. Often enough, the process of conflict resolution can be morally challenging, politically complicated and involves difficult choices.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


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