‘In my experience, there is nothing like staring a military commander in the face, asking him what his war objective is, and discussing alternative means to achieve it. I asked the commander of the Bosnian Army that question in 1995, having been told by both the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community that his objective was to conquer 100 percent of the country's territory, at the time two-thirds occupied by the Bosnian Serb Army. He responded that his president had told him to fight until all the refugees and displaced people could go home. This was significantly different from the consensus understanding in Washington. His objective was achieved in principle at the Dayton peace talks later the same year by negotiation’.
It is interesting to note that in one conflict (Afghanistan) an international consensus is slowly emerging about the need to negotiate with the Taliban, a murderous regime, but in another (Libya) the opposition to any negotiation with Colonel Gaddafi remains as strong as ever.
This is perhaps unsurprising. NATO has been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly ten years, the conflict in Libya has not yet reached ten weeks. The West has also previously shown a willingness to use double standards, for a long time eschewing negotiation with the Taliban but showing a willingness to negotiate with people of similar background and worldview in Iraq. Context matters, as do the stories leaders have told their electorates about the reason for the fight: the Taliban were portrayed as the same as Al Qaeda, which made negotiation near impossible. The same may be the case in Libya, but until we begin a real conversation with the enemy (both in Libya and Afghanistan) it will be difficult to figure out what can be achieved through non-military means.
In addition, the history of negotiations shows that parties change their views as they talk. That can swing both ways. The Taliban and Colonel Gaddafi may reduce their ambitions; so might we. As Serwer puts it, ‘negotiations are a good bet even if they don't end in a deal.’ At the same time, he warns that ‘negotiations may be a good idea, but they are not a short cut out of Afghanistan.’ Nor are they a short-cut out of Libya. Timing, in particular, is key. The time is probably right in Afghanistan for a process but far too early in Libya.
Finally, negotiation can undermine the very reason for the intervention, dishonour the lives lost in the process and create a revanchist sentiment that flames future conflict. Sticking to “red lines” is therefore crucial. In Libya, this means a future without Colonel Gaddafi. In Afghanistan, it means that the Taliban will have to respect a number of conditions, including respect of our security and that of ordinary Afghans.