Reasoning with the Taliban
In the past few weeks, as President Barack Obama closes in on a decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan, a couple of alluring ideas have resurfaced in Washington.
The first is that talks with the Taliban, or with members of the fundamentalist Islamist movement, might be worth pursuing more agressively, to advance the day that U.S. troops could begin to leave.
The second is the suggestion the Taliban in Afghanistan might be willing to sever its ties to al Qaeda, or that growing Taliban influence there may not directly threaten the United States.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said there was a clear distinction between “a global transnational jihadist network that seeks to strike the United States” and a Taliban movement whose capability is “somewhat different.”
Enticing ideas they may be for a White House seeking an easy way out of an almost impossible situation, but regional experts have been quick to point out some serious flaws.
Right now, even the U.S. military admits the Taliban has the initiative in Afghanistan.
The movement has little interest in talks, still less in ceding anything meaningful, when it believes it only has to stick around for the day that the United States finally wearies of the war and leaves the region.
Nor are large-scale defections likely unless and until the United States regains the initiative in the Afghan war.
Throughout history, Afghan commanders have shown a strong tendency to defect to the winning side. Some of them could be tired of war, and a few could be bought off, but many will be extremely reluctant to join what they see as the losing side.
The second idea, that a resurgent Taliban is not focused on striking the United States, was exploited by Taliban last week, when they said they have no plan and had never had a plan to harm foreign countries. Their only goal, they said, was independence and the establishment of an Islamic state.
It is an idea that many Afghan experts see as dangerous. Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation described White House distinctions between the Taliban and al Qaeda as a “Shibboleth” and incongruous with the facts on the ground.
Bruce Riedel of The Brookings Institution, who helped Obama draw up his original strategy review in March, says it is a “fairy tale” to think the Taliban can be split off from al Qaeda. The bar for determining whether the Taliban are willing to enter into serious talks, he argues, should be whether they are willing to hand over Osama bin Laden.
For eight years since Sept. 11, 2001 the Taliban and al Qaeda have lived, fought and died together in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many intelligence analysts say ties between the two groups have grown stronger.
Several times in the past few years, the Pakistani military has signed truces with the Taliban movement, sometimes in exchange for a promise not to harbour foreign fighters from al Qaeda.
The truces, like one signed in the Swat Valley in February, were often sharply criticised by the United States, seldom lasted long, often left the militants stronger, and did nothing to bring al Qaeda’s leaders closer to justice.
Whether the United States should send more troops to Afghanistan remains a very difficult question to answer. But to expect too much from reasoning with the Taliban would, experts say, be ignoring the lessons of history and experience.
Photo credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque (Obama speaks about elections in Afghanistan at White House in August), Reuters/Carlos Barria (U.S. soldier in position as smoke rises from artillery fire against Taliban militia in Afghanistan in August)