, Volume 90, Number 5

Thomas Waldman

This article examines the evolution of western policy towards the idea of pursuing negotiations with the Taliban, or ‘reconciliation’, in Afghanistan and the role that research and expert opinion played in that process. The official western position has evolved iteratively from initial rejection to near complete embrace of exploring the potential for talks. It is widely assumed that the deteriorating security situation was the sole determinant of this major policy reversal, persuading decisionmakers to rethink what had once been deemed unthinkable. Moreover, given the politicized and sensitive nature of the subject, we might expect the potential for outside opinion to influence decision-makers to be low. Nevertheless, this article demonstrates that it would be a mistake to underestimate the role that research and expert knowledge played—the story is more nuanced and complex. Research coalesced, sometimes prominently, with other key drivers to spur and shape policy change. Importantly, it often took experts to make sense of events on the ground, especially where the failure of the military approach was not recognized, understood or palatable to those in official circles. Research interacted with changing events, policy windows, the emergence of new personalities and the actions of various intermediaries to shape emerging positions. More broadly, the case of reconciliation in Afghanistan reveals the difficulties and challenges, but also the variety of opportunities and techniques, for achieving research influence in conflict-affected environments.

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