Negotiators engaged in conflict management are commonly advised to focus on the big picture, but sometimes it’s the smaller signs that can derail an agreement.
That was literally the case in July when the U.S. government’s plans to engage in peace talks with the Taliban were scuttled over a simple sign and other symbols, as Dion Nissenbaum writes in the Wall Street Journal.
In June, the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, the results of years of negotiations. The ceremonial opening was supposed to have launched direct talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.
But to the surprise of both U.S. and Afghan officials, the Taliban wasted no time in putting up signs, flags, and banners that identified the office as the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – the name that the Taliban used when it ruled Afghanistan. The signage was viewed as an attempt by the Taliban to represent itself as Afghanistan’s government in-exile.
In the wake of an angry reaction from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who threatened to boycott planned peace talks, the Taliban took down the signs and flag. But they then refused to engage in the peace negotiations unless they were permitted to restore the symbols to their office, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters.
“The stumbling block seems to be not so much the meetings, or sequence of meetings, but whether or not they can put back up” the sign, said Dobbins. Dobbins also said that he believed the Taliban remained serious about peace negotiations but that the question of “how they are called and what they call themselves” continues to loom large.
Such diplomatic disputes aren’t new to Dobbins. In 1968, he was a junior officer with the U.S. diplomatic team working on peace talks to end the Vietnam War.
“These kinds of symbols can often be important to those engage and can become significant obstacles,” said Dobbins, who faced a similar dispute back in 1968 when he was working on peace talks to end the Vietnam War. He recalled that it took a year for parties to agree on whether the table for the peace talks should be round or rectangular.
The message for business negotiators and others engaged in conflict management? Details that may seem trivial, such as the wording on a signify much greater issues in negotiation. In the case of the Taliban, its insistence on identifying itself as Afghanistan’s de facto leadership reflects issues that would need to be addressed once again, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters.
When a negotiator balks over seemingly unimportant details, try to get to the root of his or her concern. Deep-seated issues related to respect and identity could lie at the heart of the matter, and may need to be discussed before moving on to more substantive matters.
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Related Article: Conflict Management – The Challenge of Managing Long-term Concerns