With Karzai off to Washington, Taliban talks back in focus

May 8, 2010

marjah“The effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory—as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience.”

The quote is from Henry Kissinger on Vietnam but you could just as easily apply it to the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan of aiming to weaken the Taliban enough to bring them to the negotiating table. And unfashionable as it is to compare Vietnam to Afghanistan (it was hopelessly overdone last year), it does encapsulate one of the many paradoxes of the American approach to the Taliban.

If, so the argument goes, the United States is willing to reach an eventual political settlement with the Taliban, why does it keep launching fresh military offensives? Or alternatively, if it has no intention of making a deal, why has President Barack Obama promised to start drawing down troops in 2011, signalling to the Taliban that all they need to do is wait it out until the Americans leave?

In this 2008 Newsweek article which carries remarkable resonance today, Kissinger, a former National Security Adviser, sets out the risks of a strategy that is somewhere between war and peace.

“When the United States goes to war, it should be able to describe to itself how it defines victory and how it proposes to achieve it. Or else how it proposes to end its military engagement and by what diplomacy. In Vietnam, America sent combat forces on behalf of a general notion of credibility and in pursuit of a negotiation whose content was never defined,” he writes.

He then faults previous administrations for assuming that once the U.S. military thwarted the North Vietnamese, “an undefined compromise would emerge through diplomacy—in effect, a strategy seeking stalemate, not victory. But stalemate violates the maxim that the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. “

“The purpose of war is victory. Stalemate is a last resort, not a desirable strategic objective.” (my italics)

As things currently stand, stalemate appears to be a likely outcome of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where the military “surge” ordered by Obama to reverse the momentum of the war is turning instead into a long, hard slog.

As Reuters correspondents Jonathan Burch and Ismail Sameem report, Afghans themselves are very sceptical about the potential for success of a planned operation to reassert authority over Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. It hasn’t helped that many believe an operation in Helmand in February, when thousands of U.S. Marines pushed into Marjah, has failed.

A report by policy think tank the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) found that 61 percent of 400 men interviewed in and around Marjah felt more negative about NATO forces than before the operation. “In other words, the objective of winning ‘hearts and minds’ — one of the fundamental tenets of the new counter-insurgency strategy — was not met,” ICOS said in the report

In this article for PBS, Joshua Foust sums up all the challenges faced by international forces in their forthcoming effort to retake Kandahar. Among them: popular discontent, corrupt governance, and a view amongst the people that the Taliban are the lesser of two evils. “In the end, it will probably end the way all the other ISAF operations in the South have ended: a broad stalemate that alienates vast swaths of the local population.”

Does that mean the time is now ripe to open talks with the Taliban rather than digging in any deeper? Some people think so, although the United States is still reportedly very chary.

President Hamid Karzai visits Washington next week hoping to win its support for reconciliation with Afghan insurgents. As I discussed in this analysis in February, Taliban leaders – their insurgency running strong – are unlikely to want to deal purely with an enfeebled Karzai government but would expect any talks to be endorsed directly by the Americans.  So Obama’s support for any real reconciliation with the leadership will be crucial.

“President Obama has to make clear key decisions on the course of war and peacemaking in Afghanistan,” says  Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid in the Washington Post,  who then neatly sums up the dangers raised by Kissinger about a strategy which implies fighting to a stalemate rather than to victory.

“Neighboring countries and most Afghans believe that the endgame has begun for a post-U.S. Afghanistan. There are just 14 months for the U.S. military surge to show results while Washington simultaneously prepares to begin its July 2011 troop withdrawal and handover to the Afghan government. Already, efforts to jockey for future control of Afghanistan have been seen among Pakistan, India, Iran and even Russia. Several NATO countries eager to withdraw forces are frustrated. It is clear in the region that someone will have to mediate with the Taliban, but in the absence of U.S. leadership, a tug of war is taking place over who will do it, when, how and where.”

In Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Steele writes that even Afghan women – who suffered badly at the hands of the Taliban when they were in power from 1996 to 2001 – appeared to be tilting towards a peace settlement. 

“Eight years after they were overthrown by US air power, a drumbeat is starting to sound across Afghanistan in favour of talking to the Taliban, the country’s once-hated former rulers. An idea that used to seem absurd, if not defeatist, is coming to be seen as the only credible way to end an ever-widening war. Moreover, the proposed agenda of negotiations is not a Taliban surrender, but an offer to share power in Kabul.

“President Hamid Karzai and other senior Afghan politicians support the idea. So too do a growing number of foreign governments, including Britain’s – at least tentatively – now that British troops are being killed at twice the rate they were in early 2009.

“Perhaps most surprisingly, even among Afghanistan’s small but determined group of woman professionals, the notion of making a deal with the ultra-conservative men who forced them into burkas and denied them the right to work outside the home is no longer anathema. A desperate desire for peace is trumping concern over human rights.”

 In a polemical piece in the Huffington Post, Robert Naiman says the United States must support talks with the Taliban if this is what the people of Afghanistan want:

“Either the opinions of the people of Afghanistan on questions of war and peace in their country matter or they do not. If they do not matter, then everyone in Washington pontificating about ‘democracy’ or ‘governance’ or ‘legitimacy’ or ‘corruption’ in Afghanistan please shut up immediately and remain silent. If the opinions of the Afghan public do matter, then it’s a slam dunk that the Afghan public’s demand for peace talks ought to take precedence over Pentagon demands for more killing.”

“U.S. officials who want to continue the killing concede that the endgame is a negotiated political solution with the Afghan Taliban, but insist that the ‘time is not right’ because ‘the Taliban have no reason to negotiate’, and that we have to kill more of them to ‘force the Taliban to the negotiating table’. Like Iraq WMD, this is a stupid lie repeated endlessly by all the stupid people until all the stupid people believe it.”

Expectations of clarity in next week’s meetings in Washington are probably far-fetched. In the kind of long-drawn out talks usually used to try to end an insurgency (Kissinger’s own secret talks with the North Vietnamese being a case in point), you don’t expect the major players to lay all their cards facing upwards on the table.

At best, you might get some sense of the parameters of the peace jirga Karzai is planning to hold at the end of May to discuss how to bring insurgents into peace talks. But that jirga will be very much a half-way house with the some of the main stakeholders in the war – the Taliban leaders themselves – not expected to attend.  And even if they do send some representatives, again they are unlikely to offer up their full negotiating strategy for public consumption.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, according to the New York Times, detained Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is providing the Americans with insight into the likely negotiating position of the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta shura. Baradar was arrested earlier this year outside Karachi, and according to the newspaper, Americans have had “regular, direct contact” with him for several weeks.

Quoting unnamed U.S. intelligence and military officials, it said Mullah Baradar was not revealing details of Taliban combat operations. “But the officials said he had provided American interrogators with a much more nuanced understanding of the strategy that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is developing for negotiations with the government of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who is visiting Washington next week.”

I’ve heard somewhat similar comments from Pakistani officials speaking on background, though it’s unclear whether the NYT is right in assuming that Baradar is talking about negotiations with the Karzai government. 

At a very crude level, you could argue that a senior Taliban commander is talking directly to the Americans already – and might in that case want to ask whether the NYT’s use of “interrogators” is the right choice of word.  One Pakistani official I spoke to described the talks as “constructive” and then, to partially illustrate the point, added, “no waterboarding.”

At another level, officials acknowledge that once a Taliban leader has been arrested, he loses his authority and can no longer speak for the movement, let alone its leader, Mullah Omar.  Whatever is going on in those discussions/ interrogations, we are probably not going to know for a long time to come.  And as discussed many times on this blog, most recently here, Pakistan is not expected to offer up Baradar or any other Taliban leader into a peace settlement until it is convinced its own security interests will be met vis-a-vis India. 

What we might do, however, is look for signposts to see whether the United States and its allies are ready to offer any kind of confidence building measures which might make the road to peace talks smoother.

Removing the names of some insurgents from the United Nations sanctions list is one such confidence building measure.  Five former Taliban leaders had their names removed from the so-called 1267 list in January and U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke has spoken of a need to overhaul the list of those subject to travel bans and asset freezes.  The release of prisoners and any indications of a U.S. timeline for the withdrawal of the bulk of its troops are others.

On the Taliban side, confidence building measures can take the form of public statements indicating a willingness to break with al Qaeda, or, for example, a commitment to girl’s education.

If we see any of those confidence-building measures, you might think that the possibility of talks is at least open.  If there are none, then perhaps both sides are more engaged in seeking victory than seeking compromise.  As Kissinger argued, they can be indistinguishable.









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[…] Among the disputes between Washington and Kabul are Karzai’s attempts to negotiate directly with guerrilla leaders, whom the US inaccurately generalizes as “Taliban” (many are former US allies from the 1980s and not Taliban at all). Washington would prefer that these forces not be brought into any future Afghanistan government. Most Afghans themselves, including professional women, seem to favor talks with the Taliban and oth…. […]

Posted by Afghanistan: 57 Insurgent Attacks a Day; Taliban Vow Major Campaign; Karzai to Visit Washington | Informed Comment | Report as abusive

As an insider, can you tell us what your sponsors at the ISI are planning?

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

The US will negotiate because Afghanistan is no longer the central playground in the War on Terror. It’s Pakistan. The US needs to get its troops out of Afghanistan so that they are no longer at Pakistan’s mercy. Look at it this way: they are softening on Afghanistan so they can harden on Pakistan.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

KeithZ: “they are softening on Afghanistan so they can harden on Pakistan”

I wonder why it took the US close to 9 years to figure out that it is Pakistan that has been the villain all along. If they had taken out Pakistan in 2001, by now the entire Af-Pak could have been restructured. There would have been no need to appease the various elements that Pakistan has been controlling. If Pak military gets into North Waziristan while the US pushes hard into Kandahar, it is going to toss the “elements” skywards as there is no place to escape. The “elements” will take it out on Pakistan as it is the softer target and that can be dangerous to the fledgling democratic government in Pakistan.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

These talks would certainly help US in asserting a better control over the territories held by Taliban; negotiations are always helpful, and will certainly achieve some of the important objectives.

Posted by SZaman88 | Report as abusive

@“When the United States goes to war, it should be able to describe to itself how it defines victory and how it proposes to achieve it. Or else how it proposes to end its military engagement and by what diplomacy. In Vietnam, America sent combat forces on behalf of a general notion of credibility and in pursuit of a negotiation whose content was never defined,” he (Kissingher) writes.”

Myra: Did you ask this question of “defining victory” through one of your blogs? I did not see any but do remember that I asked you whom exactly are they fighting against? Quoting Kissinger at times on this when end game is in sight is bit too late.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

It’s becoming clearer by the day that the central focus in AfPak has to be on Pakistan but unfortuanletly it is also becoming clearer that Pakistan is more a part of the problem than the solution. The Obama admn is realizing the fact that currently Pakistan is essentially a lot more dangerous than the pre-9/11 Afghanistan. With the failed NY terror plot, pressure is begining to mount on Obama, here at home, to take off the kid gloves & adopt a sterner tone with Pakistan. It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

I wonder if the US has all along been trying to get its hands inside Pakistan or not. After seeing the David Coleman Headley case, I am confused about who is a mole and who is a terrorist. What if Shahzad is a CIA mole who did some work for the CIA to justify the US action inside Pakistan? I am sure if Shahzad had trained in North Waziristan, he wouldn’t do such an amateur job. He needn’t have traveled all the way to Pakistan to do what he did. I smell something fishy here. But if the US is reaching inside Pakistan’s pants, I welcome it. The fix to the Af-Pak problem is fixing Pakistan for good. Pakistan’s strategic value has diminished for the US. There is no big enemy like the USSR for which Pakistan served as a staging ground. There are other countries that can double up for such purposes. The US is dealing with Pakistan only to clean up Afghanistan. But looks like it is Pakistan that needs the clean up and Afghanistan will survive if that is done right.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Sorry, the purpose of war is not a ‘victory’, but to defeat the opponent. Victory is simply the final result of defeating the opponent. Myra. no one in history has ever managed to defeat the Pashtoons Afghans, call them what you like. Talibans or Afghan Talibans or Pakistan Talibans. They roughly number over sixty million. The Brits managed to split them in two by sheer deceit, paying for the roads they built in the North west of today’s Pakistan. They have no loyalty to Pakistan or Afghanistan. Their loyalty is to their family and tribes. One needs to be more powerful to defeat them or pay them the money to buy their loyalty for a limited predefined purpose. They do not negotiate with any one. The rag tag US and its allies are the weakest enemy they have ever encountered in history. They pay them money, show respect for their leaders such as Karzai, yes Karzai, he is a Pashtoon, and have offered to win their hearts and minds. They even let them grow poppies to supply the western world with heroin. Given this situation can they be defeated? The answer is no, since similar tricks have been used before by the Brits. and they were massacred in two Afghan wars. There is a great difference between the compromise and victory, and this difference has always been diluted through the clever use of english language by the Brits and later the Henry Kissinger and co. This method has also not worked in Afghanistan after the Amir ordered the massacre of foreigners, by simply saying that the document he had signed was written in english. Mr Karzai is capable of repeating the same statement.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive


If what you say is true, then the best solution for global peace and security is to finish the thing once in and for all. Give the Pashtoons their homeland. Take the Pashtoon areas and merge them into Afghanistan.

If Pakistanis like yourself feel that securing the Pashtoon areas is impossible, then other solutions need to be looked at. The world is not going to sit back and accept weekly terrorists attacks just because Pakistanis are too feeble to get the job done.

If you say the source of the problem is British Imperial meddling and the division of the Pashtoon homeland, then why not reverse that decision? I am sure giving the Pashtoons their own homeland will solve some problems.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

First of all I am not a Pakistani nor do I represent Pakistan. Somehow the moderator is not removing the title. In Europe we have more or less peace now. The global security responsibility is with the United Nations which is at present impotent. Perhaps You need to ask those great powers who as of this day do not accept the international criminal court. The Pashtoons have their homeland, they do not need any authorization. The world has never seen the Afghan Govt. without the approval of Pashtoon tribes. In the future the world in unlikely to see a stable Govt. in Pakistan without their approval. The Pashtoons, Talibans or Pashtoon Afghans could not care less what happens in rest of the world. They are not responsible for the events outside their country and they are very allergic to foreigners and by foreigners I mean non Pashto speaking people, including the Pakistanis, Tajiks and other minorities now living in Swat and Afghanistan. Nothing could influence them to submit other than force. This they have not seen over centuries. They are hospitable, loyal and non vioöent people as long as you leave them alone. They are humans and take vengence when harmed. They take their time but when the call goes all the tribes become one and they write history. Perhaps you should read history and try to understand these peaceful volks.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

PS forgot to write my name,
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

[…] in the idea of fighting insurgents enough to bring them to the negotiating table.  As Henry Kissinger said of the Vietnam War, “The effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of […]

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[…] in the idea of fighting insurgents enough to bring them to the negotiating table.  As Henry Kissinger said of the Vietnam War, “The effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of […]

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