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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