Bargaining on and off the Battlefield: The Bargaining Model of War and Negotiations with the Afghan Taliban

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Carl von Clausewitz was the first to describe war as bargaining. Specifically, he pontificated that “the desire for peace on each side will rise and fall with the probability of further successes and the amount of effort these would require. Peace will result so long as their sum total is sufficient” (Clausewitz 1976, 92). Clausewitz’s initial observation spurred on a major research agenda. Indeed, scholars such as Shelling, Reiter and Fearon have all written on the bargaining model of war. In particular, Fearon observed that war results (or sustains) due to three types of bargaining failure: uncertainty concerning the abilities and/or resolve of either or both one’s own forces or those of the opposition, commitment problems, and the indivisibility of an objective. This research seeks to answer when and under what conditions the Taliban will be willing to come to the negotiating table in earnest. In doing so, it will focus on four areas: 1) battlefield considerations, 2) off the battlefield considerations, 3) the role of third parties and nested conflicts, and 4) the durability/commitment to any future peace accord.

First, as regards battlefield considerations, the Taliban continue to take and hold additional Afghan territory through force of arms. As such, they will be incentivized to delay negotiations until they feel they have achieved their maximal territorial gains. This is not to say that negotiations are impossible prior to this point, but the requisite concessions to the Taliban will need to compensate for this reality in order to hasten the start of negotiations. As Clauswitz also observed, “the side that feels the lesser urge for peace will naturally get the better bargain” (Clausewitz 1976, 92).

Second, off the battlefield considerations are equally important. Clausewitz characterized war as “simply the continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means” (Clausewitz 1976, 605). Importantly, warfighting is just one of many means that are simultaneously brought to bear when belligerents bargain.

For example, the Taliban already controls large swaths of territory that are endowed with rare earth metals. While extraction is only possible under conditions of relative stability, the potential for windfall profits exists. As such, empowering greedy and less ideologically committed members of the Taliban may help accelerate the path to a negotiated settlement irrespective of battlefield outcomes and future expectations.

Third, while the primary focus of this report is the Taliban, the conflict in Afghanistan involves myriad third parties. Third party considerations are important as they can directly affect Taliban calculations both on and off the battlefield. For example, if Pakistan were to deny the Afghan Taliban cross-border sanctuary, this would undermine their martial capabilities and hasten their interest in negotiations. Similarly, if China were to negotiate an agreement to extract rare earth minerals, this may further encourage negotiations irrespective of battlefield outcomes.

In addition, the Taliban is not only in direct competition with both the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA); it is also confronting the Islamic State in Khorasan Province. The two groups appear to be engaging in extensive outbidding, wherein each group seeks to demonstrate their superiority through increasingly violent and highly visible attacks. This process further complicates the Taliban’s ability to negotiate with GoIRA and will be explored.

Finally, a peace agreement is only valuable if it holds. While it is difficult to speculate on the durability of a potential future peace agreement for which the terms are currently unknown, this research will highlight likely areas of particular concern based on specific knowledge of Afghanistan, as well as lessons learned from the recent accord between the Colombian government and FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).


This report will involve rigorously structured desk-based research employing process tracing and thick description. It will leverage insights from previous interviews, expert discussions, archival research and quantitative modeling on Afghanistan conducted by Barnett Koven.


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