Time to think about Afghanistan end-game?

October 5, 2008

Afghan girl in Taloqan/Fabrizio BenschBritain’s commander in Afghanistan has said the war against the Taliban cannot be won and suggested talks with the group might be a way of making progress.

“We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army,” Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said in an interview with the Sunday Times.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this,” he said. “That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

Women in Taloqan/Fabrizio BenschHis comments are perhaps not quite as startling as they first appear. NATO commanders and diplomats have been saying for some time that the Taliban insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone and that negotiations will ultimately be needed to bring an end to the conflict. In some ways, it’s almost stating the obvious since insurgencies are never totally defeated and all sides have to sit down and negotiate at some point.

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he had made a call for peace to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and had asked Saudi Arabia to help in talks with the group. A senior Taliban commander rejected the call and said the Taliban would not negotiate while there were still foreign troops on Afghan soil.

But despite the rejection, there does seem to be a growing sense that something is going on, and that people on the ground are beginning to think about how eventually to end the war in Afghanistan.

In an article in Canada’s Edmonton Sun, Eric Margolis has no doubts that it is time for Canada to bring its troops home, arguing that the occupation of Afghanistan is not about preventing another 9/11 but rather to secure routes for pipelines bringing Caspian oil and gas from Central Asia to the West.

“The Taliban are not ‘terrorists’,” he writes. “The movement had nothing to do with 9/11 though it did shelter Osama bin Laden …  Only a handful of al Qaeda are left in Afghanistan. The current war is not really about al Qaeda and ‘terrorism’, but about opening a secure corridor through Pashtun tribal territory to export the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Basin to the West. Canada and the rest of NATO have no business being pipeline protection troops.”

But in an op-ed in the New York Times, Robert Kaplan writes that the Afghan campaign is “more than a manhunt” and must be secured,  at the very least to ensure the stability of neighbouring Pakistan.

He writes that it may be necessary to make make deals with some Taliban groups against others. “For the Taliban are not a monolithic organization, but bands of ornery Pashtun backwoodsmen who have been cut out of the power base in Afghanistan by an increasingly corrupt and ineffectual government in Kabul. They are not al Qaeda …”

Then picking up the same theme as Margolis but reaching a different conclusion, he says Afghanistan would benefit from becoming a transit route for Central Asian oil and gas.

“Even under a weak central government, Afghanistan could finally achieve economic salvation: the construction of a web of energy pipelines that have been envisioned for years connecting Central Asia with the Indian Ocean. These might run, for example, from the natural gas fields of Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan and into the dense population zones of Pakistan and India, with terminals at ports like Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan and Surat in the Indian state of Gujarat,” he writes. “In other words, in Afghanistan we are not simply trying to save a country, but to give a whole region a new kind of prosperity and stability, united rather than divided by energy needs, that would be implicitly pro-American.”

(I wrote just a couple of days ago about whether energy pipelines could become a cause for peace rather than war, in a post about long-delayed plans for an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline bringing Iranian gas to Indian markets.)

So is it time to think about bringing an end to the Afghan campaign? And if so, on what terms? By walking away and trying to avoid any more bloodshed? Or by achieving peace – if necessary by offering parts of the Taliban a share of power in Kabul – and then securing it by giving Afghanistan a strategic importance that binds it into the regional and global economy?

7 comments

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There might be a case for disengaging and leaving the Afgan government in a position to contain the Taliban.It is delusional to talk of achieving peace through negotiation. A little look at recent history would shed some light. What came of Andres Pastrana Arango’s attempts to appease the FARC in Columbia ? What of Zapatero’s negotiations with ETA ?These people want to dominate and don’t mind killing innocents. Their only interest in negotiation is to buy time and get concessions. They will honor accords only when convenient to the end goal – total domination of their part of the world.

Posted by Jeffrey Tischler | Report as abusive

[...] Time to think about Afghanistan end-game? [...]

“The Taliban are not terrorists…”Yeah, tell that to the women who were beaten and stoned to death for such grievous crimes as exposing their hair, and walking in public without their husband, brother, or father as an escort.

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

This is a step that should have been considered a long time ago, when the Taliban’s excesses were still fresh. Now after all this time and clumsy policy towards Afghan rebuilding, a lot of people regard NATO presence as an invasion and no efforts are visible to rebuild the country and so more and more are joining the Taliban, something that never would have happened if instead years ago efforts were put more into reconstruction and providing support to a responsible independent government…As it is, the alliance still concentrates on military ops and support of a puppet Karzai and a corrupt regime while Afghans still lead lives as hard as ever. It’s no wonder Taliban regained strength and popular support for Karzai and the alliance is waning. The US misreads European reluctance to commit more troops as cowardice, but thats not the case, it’s because European members recognize the fact that the role of war in Afghanistan has long expired and there’s no point in turning this into a slugging match with the Taliban that spans into years and years. If Afghans see their country being rebuilt into something better with the help of the outside world and the country run in safe responsible hands of all various factions, then the existence of the Taliban will no longer be justified and it will die out by itself. It will not matter anymore.

Posted by tag jon | Report as abusive

let’s do what ONU decide!

Posted by Leonardo Starling | Report as abusive

Afghanistan war has always been about the illegal drug trade that is controlled by the CIA. The Taliban was not producing enough poppy. They were against it. Osama Bin Laden is not wanted for 911. If you do not believe that, just check with the FBI. There is no evidence against him for it and thus he is not wanted for it. Check out this video if you do not believe me:http://video.google.com/videoplay?doc id=8797525979024486145

Posted by Ashley | Report as abusive

Western governments should either commit themselves to a total occupation of Afghanistan to eradicate opposition or should pull their troops out. The current half-hearted approach is achieving nothing and never will.The Taliban are no threat to the West and Western governments have no business wasting their taxpayers’ money and the lives of their soldiers in fighting them.The way the Afghans choose to run their country, whether by tyranny or liberalism, is a matter for them to resolve amongst themselves.The country should be kept under close electronic and satellite surveillance by the West and IF it does again become a credible threat by providing training camps for terrorists, the camps should be blitzed by high level bombing as was done before, as often and for as many years as is necessary to suppress the threat. Innocent people will inevitably be caught under the bombs on occasion, but that is the responsibility of the Afghans who allow the camps to be set up.Whatever the financial and political cost to the West, it is better than wasting the lives of Western soldiers.

Posted by Andrew, UK | Report as abusive

US democracy is a joke! The reasons the US started fighting the Taliban, or so we we told, is to bring democracy to the area, and right the wrongs of the Taliban. The persecution of women of girls, the killing of anyone not adhering to any and all forms of the so-called Muslim beliefs of the Taliban. Human rights to the Taliban to not exist, only their demonic ways. The US cares nothing for people only big business and politics that benefit them. It is disgraceful.

Posted by Claudius | Report as abusive