On tipping points and Taliban talks
One of the issues that seems to arouse the strongest emotions in the Afghan debate is the question of when the United States and its allies should engage in talks with the Taliban. Some argued that the moment was ripe a few months ago, when both sides were finely balanced against each other and therefore both more likely to make the kind of concessions that would make negotiations possible. It was an argument that surfaced forcefully at the London conference on Afghanistan in January. Others insisted that U.S.-led forces had to secure more gains on the battlefield first.
If you go by this survey carried out in December by Human Terrain Systems (pdf) (published this month by Danger Room) the people of Kandahar province were convinced at the end of last year of the need for negotiations: (as usual health warnings apply to any survey conducted in a conflict zone):
“Reconciliation is a popular concept in Kandahar province. There is almost universal agreement that negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting. Specific approaches such as calling a Loya Jirga and a jobs training program for former fighters are both widely supported. The desire for reconciliation is likely driven by the perception that the Taliban are part of Afghan society; a significant majority of respondents view the Taliban as ‘our Afghan brothers’. This opinion is unsurprising considering the ethnic makeup of the Taliban - highly Pashtun – and the movement’s history in Kandahar Province,” it says.
Since December/January both sides have faced setbacks. The arrest in Pakistan of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, for whatever reason, has at the very least sent a message to the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta Shura that they can no longer count on Pakistan as a safe haven. At the same time, the U.S.-led military campaign seems to be running into problems, if the latest spate of negative press reporting about the forthcoming offensive in Kandahar is to be believed (see Martine van Bijlert at the Afghan Analysts Network on her recent visit to Kandahar; The Guardian for a useful round-up of links; or follow these blogs by Kandahar residents Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn)
Does that mean we have now reached a new point of balance where both sides stand to gain more from talking than fighting? Not necessarily. Wars have a way of gaining a momentum of their own in which some developments – for example the planned offensive in Kandahar – become unstoppable.
But perhaps equally importantly, how are we to recognise when this point has been reached? Where is the tipping point?
A report just published by the RAND Corporation, “How Insurgencies End” (pdf), based on a survey of 89 different insurgencies, has some worrying pointers for anyone who thinks they will know for sure when is the right time to open talks:
“An insurgency could effectively be over without either side realizing that it had won or lost for several years,” it says. “It is commonly very difficult to recognise a tipping point until long after it has passed,” it says, citing a report that argues that ”most tipping points occur unbeknownst to even close observers and that these observers often draw erroneous conclusions from paradigm shifts in conditions or behavior.”
“In the case of insurgent victory, the end game for the state is a rather swift one. Governments … pass a tipping point and begin to decay at an accelerating rate. This is often an indicator that the final period of the struggle has begun. Between the time the conflict enters this phase and the time the state disintegrates, the conflict ‘speeds up’.”
History is replete with examples of where countries might have won more on the negotiating table than on the battlefield had they been willing to open talks with insurgents when they still stood a chance of success. Has that moment already passed? That will depend really on how the Afghan war develops in the months and years to come.
Is the outcome of the U.S. military offensive inevitable, as Alex Strick van Linschoten writes rather bleakly: “We’re only at the beginning of the summer. Four or five months to go before we realise that the surge didn’t really work. If only we could fast-forward to that point and avoid all the deaths to come.”
Or are there some more variables out there that will shift the equation? The RAND report devotes considerable attention to the importance of insurgents having outside sanctuary in determining their success or victory. Having just been to Pakistan myself, it certainly seems clear the Taliban enjoy less sanctuary than before - you just need to look at the steeply rising Pakistani military death tolls post 2007 in the Powerpoint slides much used by the Pakistan Army in briefings to see that something has changed. (How much it has changed is open to debate, but that’s a different subject.)
The report also notes that wars can be lost in public opinion at home even if they are won on the battlefield – Vietnam, arguably, being a case in point. It suggests the McChrystal way (“surging” into counter-insurgency, or COIN) will work only if the United States and its allies are in Afghanistan for the long haul (ie no exit strategy for 2011).
“No insurgency ending is inevitable. It is a simple thing to say, ‘Nothing is inevitable’. It is quite another to turn a COIN campaign once it has reached a tipping point. Many of the cases we studied, however, showed that a renewed burst of purposeful activity … or unexpected happenstance … could force a major shift in momentum at any point along the conflict arc. When coupled with the finding that insurgents do not win simply by sustaining operations over time, the prospects for counterinsurgents appear more hopeful. Counterinsurgents should, however, be aware that these renewed bursts of activity typically precede lengthy and expensive commitments to end the insurgency.”