For years, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia were regarded as implacable, irreconcilable enemies – and were often reduced in Western perceptions to being terrorist entities, divorced from their national and cultural contexts.

This year, however, the U.S. performed an about-face and started negotiating with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) runs out of time and money, negotiations with al-Shabaab might follow in due course.

In these cases, and others, there is a complex interplay between the adjustment of war objectives and changing perceptions of the nature of the insurgent group.

For the vast majority of the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban has been regarded as beyond the pale. When it ruled the country, it offered a haven to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And it treated Afghanistan’s people with remarkable savagery: conducting public executions, setting women’s rights back by decades, and curbing the freedom of expression for anyone who saw the world differently. It delighted in destroying UNESCO monuments. Only three other states were willing to have any kind of relations with the Taliban government.

Excluded from the 2001 Bonn conference, the Taliban has resisted the Afghan government and its principal Western allies for years. Yet a fixation on the Taliban and its links to terrorism obscured the complex local realities of Afghanistan. Much of the rural violence attributed to Taliban insurgency by NATO forces was in fact local feuds between tribal factions – over land, water and influence.

The Taliban’s hold on rural populations was transient, as were local sympathies for it. For instance, spikes in the number of people joining its ranks were recorded each time British forces in Helmand attempted to destroy crops of heroin poppies – a retribution from local poppy farmers.

As recently as summer 2017, the U.S. doubled down as part of a new South Asia strategy. With HR McMaster – a man with significant experience in Afghanistan – as National Security Advisor, the U.S. was fighting to win. It set aside arbitrary timetables, earmarked more forces for the conflict and relaxed its rules of engagement.

Sure enough, according to its own data, the U.S. military fired more weapons in Afghanistan in 2018 than in any other year of the war. However, the military strategy did not engage with underlying local support and revenue sources backing the Taliban. The group weathered the assault and actually held more territory at the end of the year than at the start.

Barely one year after recommitting to the war, and not long after McMaster departed the White House, the U.S. was looking for an exit – and to that end it entered into direct negotiations with the Taliban, without insisting on either a ceasefire or the involvement of the government of Afghanistan.

The taboo has been broken – the U.S. has negotiated, for months, with a group it previously regarded as an implacable, irreconcilable enemy

In late summer 2019 it seemed those talks might yield an interim deal by which the U.S. would reduce its forces in a staged manner. The collapse of those talks in September – amid the departure of McMaster’s successor, John Bolton, from office – has set back the process. But it seems likely that a U.S. president with a wariness of foreign military entanglements will again seek to extricate his country from a long-running war that it has little prospect of winning under the current terms of engagement.

And even if a deal cannot be done, the taboo has already been broken – the U.S. has negotiated, for months, with a group it previously regarded as an implacable, irreconcilable enemy.

The Taliban made some steps to help the U.S. in this regard. It offered promises that it would no longer threaten the U.S. or its allies, nor give aid to groups that sought to do so. In the last year, it has gone to considerable lengths to attack ISIS in Afghanistan, to underscore its credentials as a partner with whom the U.S. can deal.

Understanding the past

In the Horn of Africa, Somalia’s al-Shabaab has for years been a thorn in the side of its host government and foreign allies. It is one of al-Qaeda’s most enduring affiliates, with extensive territorial control in the central and southern parts of the country.

However, al-Shabaab’s current form has been shaped by misunderstandings of its past. Its origins lie in the collapse of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), another harsh but successful provider of stability that grew out of an anarchic civil war in the mid-2000s. While the ICU undeniably included al-Qaeda figures, the extent to which it was controlled by them was overestimated by the United States in the post 9/11 landscape.

Ethiopia was desperate to invade and, with an eventual American blessing, it entered Mogadishu and destroyed the ICU in 2006. However, the jihadists within it were the ones who survived and regrouped as al-Shabaab. Somalia’s longtime enmity of Ethiopia made it easy for al-Shabaab to capitalise on the moment, channelling Somali nationalism as much as religious ideology into its recruitment efforts.

To this day, al-Shabaab is an astonishingly durable force. It is believed to have somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 combatants in its ranks, and it is facing a force of 21,000 AMISOM peacekeepers, as well as the Somali National Army and police. Yet in over ten years of combat, Somali and international forces have been unable to make their victories permanent.

Inevitability of negotiation

While AMISOM can easily retake al-Shabaab territory, it does not have the strength to hold it, and al-Shabaab swiftly retakes areas after those forces withdraw. Meanwhile, the weak Somali Federal Government struggles to extend its authority beyond Mogadishu and is unable to provide the services that Somalis desperately need. Many of al-Shabaab’s combatants are merely Somalis with no alternative livelihood, who see no hope of their government giving them a better life.

Al-Shabaab is notorious for its devastating terrorist attacks, particularly in the capital Mogadishu, but also further afield in Kenya and other east African nations. This October marked two years since the horrific truck bombing at Zobe Junction in Mogadishu, which killed 585 people and still haunts Mogadishu’s residents.

Talking to the group behind the bombing may seem inconceivable, and it is rarely discussed in Western circles. Yet as the African Union makes plans for the withdrawal of AMISOM, the notion of talking to al-Shabaab is becoming harder to dismiss. Somalis are frank in their view that negotiation is inevitable. During recent interviews in Mogadishu, both government officials and civilians concurred that al-Shabaab would have to be negotiated with at some point, although not yet. The right time for negotiation, they said, would be when al-Shabaab is on the defensive and facing the prospect of defeat.

Identifying the tipping point

While such logic is sound, identifying that tipping point is far more challenging in such an asymmetric conflict. The Taliban continued conducting attacks during the negotiations to strengthen its bargaining position. Al-Shabaab would in all likelihood mimic this strategy. Meanwhile, negotiating with either group would force painful questions about the future of each country, particularly with regard to women’s rights and civil liberties.

Assuming an enemy can never be a negotiating partner potentially carries a heavy strategic cost.

Looking at a conflict exclusively through a counter-terrorism lens obscures the many drivers that make people fight and leads to a severe misunderstanding of insurgencies. If a war cannot be won and negotiations are begun out of a desperation to withdraw, the odds of gaining the upper hand in a settlement are slim indeed.

The prospect of negotiation can never be ruled out. Prudent policy anticipates the opportune moment and the terms to be set.

Reconciling with the irreconcilable, Eleanor Beevor and Nicholas Redman, the International Institute for Strategic Studies