Officials and commentators increasingly doubt that a military solution to the Afghan conflict can be achieved. Accordingly, there have been increasing calls for the allied forces to seek a regional solution that would involve a diplomatic arrangement, such as negotiated power sharing among factions within Afghanistan and regional states. In her speech to the New York Asia Society in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that NATO’s civilian-military efforts in Afghanistan create an opportunity for regional reconciliation wherein Taliban abandons its support to Al-Qaeda and accepts the Afghan constitution. She added, “I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable… But that’s how one makes peace.” Although reports of U.S. talks with insurgents surfaced even during the Bush administration, American officials might be getting more serious about this now, as military operations in southern Afghanistan seem increasingly futile. According to a White House spokesman, the Secretary’s remarks gave “a thorough representation of the U.S. position.” If this is indeed the official position, it is one devoid of strategy.
With the establishment of the High Peace Council in September 2010, reconciliation became an official policy in Afghanistan. Since 2005 the Afghan government has tried to lure (with money, jobs, and promises of security) low and mid-level insurgents into laying down their arms and “reintegrating” into society. The London conference endorsed Afghan President Hamid Karsai’s plan to establish a fund to woo insurgents and for the Afghan government to develop a comprehensive peace program. When violence in the country surged in 2008, Britain and Saudi Arabia came out as major facilitators helping to arrange safe travels for Taliban commanders between Kabul, Pakistan and even European capitals for parleys that also included American representatives. Afghanistan’s Peace Council has sent delegations to Pakistan and Turkey to discuss ways of ending the conflict.
However those talks have proceeded, the attempted reach-out to the Taliban remains confused. By engaging the enemy, Western parties might hope to drive a wedge between Taliban factions and weed out those with ties to Al-Qaeda from more moderate insurgents with nationalist goals. But this strategy requires an elaborate understanding of the enemy and his motives. Taliban leaders are thought to demand withdrawal of foreign troops, key posts in government ministries, and to have their names cleared off UN blacklists, but there is no stable, agreed-upon list of requests and they are prone to change their minds. If the Taliban wages a war of attrition and expects the allied troops to exit they have no incentives to strike any deals now. Meanwhile civil rights groups and minorities criticize the reconciliation talks because any settlement with the enemy may jeopardize their hard-gained freedoms after the fall of Taliban in 2001.
Ahmed Rashid (author of the book Taliban) wrote in Foreign Policy that the Taliban in Afghanistan may already be too fragmented or controlled by regional powers to enter discussions with, but suggested that negotiating with the enemy may still be the only way out of the conflict. The general incompetence of go-betweens was demonstrated by a ludicrous episode, when a con-man successfully posed as a senior Taliban commander willing to talk. Mullah Mansour—his presumed name—flew on a British aircraft, reportedly even met Karzai himself and then vanished with cash the allies handed him.
Any negotiation plan must address the challenge posed by Pakistan, from whose territory Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements wield a substantial influence on insurgency in Afghanistan. Nothing can be achieved without the support of the Pakistani powers-that-be. Shortly after assuming the post of the Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009 late Richard Holbrooke in an interview with the New York Times described the situation in Pakistan as “dim and dismal”, adding that Pakistan’s fears stem primarily from its fears of encirclement by India and abandonment by American. The trouble is that the United States (or any other country) has little leverage over Pakistan, whose state-capacity to combat internal insurgency has been weak and has been further weakened by recent devastating floods. According to a just released White House bi-annual report to the Congress on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “there is no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the unprecedented and sustained deployment of over 147,000 [Pakistani] forces.”
Because of Pakistan’s sway over Afghanistan’s future, the United States has encouraged Islamabad to assist in “Afghan-led” settlement of the conflict, but the latter broke off talks on numerous occasions, citing civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes, violations of sovereignty and unwillingness to be a client state. There are no substantive talks going on right now, as was stated in a recent report of the British Parliament.
It seems that many contacts between the allies and Taliban members have had aims in immediate reduction of violence, without any plans or guarantees for the future. Reportedly, the U.S. military have paid the Taliban—indirectly via corrupted Afghan contractors—not to attack American convoys delivering supplies to remote outposts. Likewise German, French and British officials have negotiated local peace deals with the Taliban in the areas controlled by their troops.
No serious discussions with other regional states—such as China, Russia, and Central Asian states and Iran—have taken place or are set to take place. China and Russia, though having clear interests in preventing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, have been wary of American military activities in the region. Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s 6+3 proposal to seek ways of ending the conflict under the UN auspices has gone largely unnoticed despite being hailed by experts as timely and relevant.
Central Asian countries favor U.S. presence in the region. They profit from shipping U.S. goods to and from Afghanistan, from U.S. technical assistance and expertise in developing their economies. They generally view U.S. involvement as way to balance Russia’s and China’s influence. Many experts argue that America has important interests in ensuring the independence and integrity of energy-rich Central Asian republics and their diversified integration in the world economy. Further unrest in Afghanistan might stir up extremist trouble within their territories with unforeseeable consequences for the region.
But negotiating with the Taliban may be unnecessary, according to Robert D. Blackwill. In his “Plan B” essay in the winter edition of Foreign Affairs, the former U.S. ambassador to India argued that America should downsize any ineffective counterinsurgency tactics of chasing a relatively small numbers of insurgents and Al-Qaeda operatives and accept a de facto partition of Afghanistan, letting the Taliban rule in the south, without any formal settlement. Blackwill, for instance, points to the fact that only three percent of Afghan army recruits are from the Pashtun south and many are reluctant to go there at all. In his view the United States should commit to a long-term combat role of 35,000-50,000 troops. Such a strategy would avert the risk of an all-out civil war following troop withdrawal, and it would have small impact on the troublesome Afghanistan-Pakistan-India triangle. Though the Taliban’s control would have sad implications for civil rights, according to Blackwill, these are the “tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for outsiders to change.”
Pentagon officials have long entertained plans of establishing a more or less permanent military presence in Afghanistan in order to strengthen the U.S. geopolitical position in the region. Hamid Karsai himself has asked the Americans to stay beyond 2014, but, of course, his utterly corrupt government heavily relies on U.S. and international backing and might not hold out without their support. The logic is that military projection capability is good in itself, that quitting the military operation will not fix America’s budget problems and that twenty-thirty thousand insurgents do not present a mortal danger to U.S. forces on the ground per se—but that rummaging for them through the whole country is dangerous and tedious. Focusing on the north might therefore prove to be a more sustainable strategy, as Robert Blackwill wrote. The only viable alternative might be to put an end to this mess by withdrawing completely, but assume the risk of civil war in the region and a likely loss of prestige.
Hillary Clinton, “Remarks at the Launch of the Asia Society's Series of Richard C. Holbrooke Memorial Addresses,” Department of State, February 18, 2011, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156815.htm.
Steve Coll, “U.S.-Taliban Talks,” New Yorker, February 28, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2011/02/28/110228taco_talk_coll.
Jason Burke, “Revealed: secret Taliban Peace Bid,” Guardian, September 28, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/28/afghanistan.defence ; “Britain renews call for Afghanistan Talks with Taliban,” Guardian, July 27, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/27/afghanistan-taliban-provincial-ceasefire-britain?INTCMP=SRCH.
Ahmed Rashid, “How Obama Lost Karzai”, March/April 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/22/how_obama_lost_karzai?page=0,0.
Interview with Richard Holbrooke, New York Times, January 29, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/cfr/world/slot3_20090128.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2.
Andrew Lebovich, “Daily Brief: White House Issues Stark Report on Pakistan,” April 6, 2011, http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/04/06/daily_brief_white_house_issues_stark_report_on_pakistan.
Selah Hennessey “British Report Calls for Talks with Taliban in Afghanistan,” March 02, 2011, http://www.voanews.com/english/news/British-Report-Calls-for-Talks-With-Taliban-in-Afghanistan-117244698.html.
Jason Ditz, “Official: US Paying Taliban to Reduce Afghan Attacks,” Antiwar, February 29, 2011, http://news.antiwar.com/2011/02/28/official-us-paying-taliban-to-reduce-afghan-attacks/.
John C.K. Daly, “Uzbek Afghanistan Proposal Relevant and Timely,” UPI, November 5, 2009, http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Analysis/Outside-View/2009/11/05/Outside-View-Uzbek-Afghanistan-proposal-relevant-and-timely/UPI-71691257429600/.
Stephen Blank, “Challenges and Opportunities for the Obama Administration in Central Asia,” Strategic Studies Institute, June 2009.
Robert D Blackwill, “Plan B in Afghanistan: Why a De Facto Partition Is the Least Bad Option,” Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2011. Vol. 90, Iss. 1.
Dmitri Titoff holds an MA in diplomacy from Seton Hall University. He writes on foreign affairs and other subjects.
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| The Taliban gunmen who stormed a school on Tuesday in the Pakistani city of Peshawar killing 148 people, including 132 children, have been identified