Bargaining Across Levels: Divide and Conquer

"The Taliban," the Government of Afghanistan, and Putnam's Two-Level Game

After many years of Afghanistan being on the backburner to Iraq and Syria, the war in the Hindu Kush lurched forward from the abyss of irrelevance with President Trump’s August 2017 address at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall where he outlined the new U.S. strategy. Trump’s decision to continue the latest, and longest, war ensures American service members will continue to fight in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Although the speech was short on specifics, Trump foresaw that it might be “possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.” A passing acknowledgment that this conflict could only truly end with a political solution. This is nothing new.

President Obama was also open to negotiations with the Taliban; but even with the support of the U.S., the Government of Afghanistan, along with the international community, has not achieved lasting success. As the coalition seeks to blunt the insurgency’s momentum to gain time and space for the Government of Afghanistan, the United States would be wise to remember legendary political scientist Robert Putnam’s two-level game theory on international diplomacy.[1] By utilizing Putnam’s theory, the United States and its Afghan allies should attempt to carve the broader Taliban insurgency into manageable pieces and seek incremental reconciliation. The United States will also need to find Afghan political actors who can give President Ashraf Ghani the political support he needs to find peace with these segments of the insurgency. Developing a strategy based on the fact the Taliban and Government of Afghanistan are not monolithic organizations is imperative in crafting a realistic path towards securing what Carl von Clausewitz described as the ultimate objective of any war:  the creation of a durable peace.[2] A long term strategy towards a peaceful resolution is badly needed and it is time to craft one.

Two-Level Games: A Metaphor for Domestic-International Interactions (Shangbo Wang)

Understanding the Two-Level Game (Scott Faith)

According to Putnam’s two-level game theory of bargaining, a country’s ability to reach an agreement with another entity in the international arena (Level I) is directly tied to the “win set” (i.e., political capital) that is determined by their political constituents at home (Level II). A win set, in essence, relates to the ability of a negotiator to craft an agreement favorable to his domestic constituents. If an agreement has a large domestic constituency (Level II) who is likely to ratify, the country has more political space to maneuver in reaching an agreement in Level I (internationally). Conversely, if there is a dearth of domestic political capital, the leader is constrained in negotiations based on low constituent support for a broader range of options or concessions. Compared to the United States, the interaction between the two-levels is vastly simplified over Afghanistan given the executive branch’s authority to lead negotiations. In heterogeneous environments, such as Afghanistan and the wider insurgency, it is harder to find political capital in domestic constituencies because each faction has its own interests and narrow bands of political support to which it is beholden.

It is currently impossible to find a win set with the Taliban.

In short, Putnam argues that a country’s ability to reach agreements with others is directly related to their leaders’ domestic political capital. The agreement made at the international level between negotiators must be acceptable at the domestic level for all the interlocutors—this requires sufficient domestic political capital. Political scientists sometimes use Putnam’s theory as a lens when dissecting past international agreements and in assessing the feasibility of future arrangements, primarily between states and international organizations. Although the Taliban is a non-state actor, using Putnam’s theory is still appropriate, as their Level II consists of their rank-and-file members and passive supporters within Afghanistan and without. Of course, this suggest that any agreement with another entity like Afghanistan, would likely need to be ratified by senior members of the movement.

Utilizing Putnam’s theory requires a thorough understanding of Afghanistan’s insurgency. Labeling the Taliban as a monolithic organization, while helpful domestically to its public, hinders the United States’ ability to engage with possible interlocutors. For example, the Taliban consists of multiple organizations including:  the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network, some elements of the Pakistani Taliban (Terik-i-Taliban), elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other smaller insurgent groups.

Using the label “the Taliban” also neglects the tribal aspect of the insurgency. Although a sizeable portion of the neo-Taliban insurgency consists of Pashtuns, specifically Ghilzai Pashtuns, the movement has diversified and includes other ethnicities, especially in northern Afghanistan. As many Afghan veterans and researchers will attest, Taliban is often a pejorative term various tribes use to label their enemies––especially when the response of third parties like the United States can be leveraged by use of such a label. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, died quietly in Pakistan sometime in 2013, and his successor, Mullah Mansour, was killed by an American airstrike in 2016. Before his death, Mansour contended with splinter groups that tested his grip over the group.[3] What these observations suggest is how unclear it is that Mawlawi Haibitullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s new emir, has a firm grip over the Quetta Shura Taliban.

It is currently impossible to find a win set with the Taliban. Akhunzada would hemorrhage members to other groups were he to attempt to corral all groups into negotiations. In fact, this is exactly what befuddled the Soviet Union during its negotiating attempts with the Peshawar Seven during its occupation of Afghanistan.[4] As Abdulkader Sinno has argued, leaders inside these disparate groups feared losing rank-and-file members to their rivals if they were seen negotiating with the Soviet Union as the tide of the war turned against the Soviets. The Peshawar Seven’s win sets were significantly smaller, as the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the communist government aligned with the Soviets, had little support outside of Kabul. The PDPA, conversely, was usually at war with itself, as the Khalq and Parcham factions attempted to outmaneuver each other––making the win set for their part very small, as well.

The Government of Afghanistan has the same problem, but to a far lesser extent than their communist predecessors in the PDPA. That said, while the Government of Afghanistan might appear healthy on paper, it is incapable of extending its reach throughout the country. This is not ahistorical, rather it reflects the reality of previous rulers who only managed to rule the hinterlands indirectly through the use of regional powerbrokers. As Thomas Barfield has argued, attempts to extend Kabul’s reach to inaccessible regions will not work; instead, the Government of Afghanistan should focus on the major population centers where it can actually provide services and broaden its domestic support so that it can subsequently increase its win set.

President Ashraf Ghani, lacking this increased win set, will struggle mightily to find the required political capital to make peace with the Taliban. His National Unity Government is hanging on by a thread due in no small part to his tense relationship with Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Additionally, President Ghani recently barred Afghanistan’s First Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, from returning to the capital following the latest in a long line of human rights abuses. Dostum subsequently joined an opposition coalition to attack an increasingly weakened Ghani. The Ankara Coalition contains other political adversaries, like Balkh Governor and Jamiat-e Islami political leader, Atta Muhammad Noor. Noor ignored Ghani’s attempts to fire him from his perch in Balkh, leading to Ghani “rehiring” the northern strongman. In short, President Ghani’s political capital inside the Government of Afghanistan, to say nothing of the broader populace of Afghanistan itself, is just as narrow as Akhunzada’s inside the Taliban.

Ghani and the United States must identify regional actors with the requisite political capital who are amenable to finding peace with segments of the insurgency and increase their own win sets so as to create a durable peace with as many of them as possible.

Finding the requisite political capital inside the Government of Afghanistan and the broader Taliban insurgency for a durable peace will be an arduous though not impossible task. Finding win sets that are palpable will be difficult enough with Afghanistan’s regional neighbors who have a vested interest in its future. Some groups involved in attacks against the Government of Afghanistan will likely never be reconcilable, like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan. The same holds true for the regional powerbrokers in Afghanistan. Some warlords may prove impossible to work with and must be sidelined.

As Audrey Kurth Cronin has argued, killing terrorists will not lead to a durable peace. President Ghani and the United States should follow Cronin’s advice in dealing with terrorist groups and slice up the broader Taliban insurgency into manageable pieces. By deconstructing the broader Taliban insurgency, the international community will likely find specific groups who are more amenable to peace. Tackling the entire Taliban insurgency in one fell swoop would be too difficult. Siphoning off the Taliban one sub-group at a time might be manageable with persistence and patience.

Afghan leaders have an intimate understanding of the insurgency at a granular level. It is likely that many field commanders inside the insurgency are fighting because of legitimate grievances. Ghani and the United States must identify regional actors with the requisite political capital who are amenable to finding peace with segments of the insurgency and increase their own win sets so as to create a durable peace with as many of them as possible. This will require pressuring senior tribal elders and provincial officials to find paths towards resolving some insurgent grievances, while also continuing to use kinetic strikes as a stick.

The simplified bargaining range between two parties to war taken from James D. Fearon's "Rationalist Explanations for War" (1995). Putnam suggests the countries value for war, value for a particular outcome, and thus their bargaining range is affected by the domestic constituencies of that country. The parties involved in an insurgency further problematizes the consideration when the counterinsurgent does not have complete control over its people, and thus has an added level of complexity for assessing the domestic level's value for war, peaceable outcome, and bargaining range. Considered for Afghanistan, the overlap of win sets within the bargaining range of numerous actors and their constituencies is the main concern for the applied Putnam two-level bargaining problem.

The United States, the Government of Afghanistan, and the international community will be making deals with rather grim and despicable interlocutors with abysmal human rights records. In his recent speech, President Trump emphatically stated that the United States would not “dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society.” There is likely considerable tolerance inside the Trump administration for any willingness by the Government of Afghanistan to make deals with such unsavory characters. Although President Trump went against his base in extending America’s war in Afghanistan, his strategy was broadly supported inside the Republican Party and only received significant criticism from the progressive Left and libertarian-minded Republicans. A strategy with the intended purpose of finding a political settlement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban would likely garner wide support across the aisle. President Trump’s domestic political capital might give him the required breathing room to be flexible in pushing the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to settlement at the negotiating table, assuming their win sets can be aligned.

This approach will require patience, persistence, and resolve. The goal should not be to pacify the entire countryside, just the major population centers. The Trump administration has certainly signaled that our commitment to Afghanistan will continue for the foreseeable future. The Government of Afghanistan’s recent success with Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) suggests that a persistent approach can pay off. Although the HIG was not a significant player inside the broader insurgency, the Government of Afghanistan found peace with a group that reigned supreme in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The peace process with HIG lasted over a decade despite many fits and starts.

Furthermore, if Colombia’s recent success with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) is any guide, finding a durable peace with sizeable portions of an insurgency can take decades. It is time that the United States and its allies plan for the long haul of supporting the Government of Afghanistan instead of remaining fixated on the immediate crisis at hand. For far too long the international community has tried and repeatedly failed to create a durable peace on a Western timeline. By dividing the insurgency into smaller manageable groups, pressuring amenable Afghan leaders, and aligning the win sets across all levels, the United States may eventually help the Government of Afghanistan bargain a tenable peace and achieve an honorable exit from its longest war.

Will Selber is an Air Force Foreign Area Officer and a former Afghan Hand. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.

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Header Image: Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani exchange signed agreements regarding the country's unity government, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 21 September 2014. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)


[1] Robert Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization, 42, no. 3 (Summer, 1988) 427-460.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 90-92.

[3] “Afghan Splinter Group Names Mulla Rasool as Leader,” BBC, 4 November 2015.

[4] Abdulkader Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 4 December 2009).