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?

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