Washington’s military strategy in Afghanistan now aims to avoid the appearance of defeat for America, but for Afghanistan it is a recipe for unending civil war. In essence, it is a version of the strategy pursued by the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s: to build up the Afghan army to the point where it can contain the insurgents without the help of outside ground forces, while seeking to win over individual insurgent commanders and their supporters. This strategy may create forces that can defend key cities against the Taliban. But it is unlikely that Afghan security forces will be able to do this on their own. And it offers little real prospect of either eliminating or winning over enough of the Taliban to control the Pashtun countryside and end the insurgency. Nor can such a large security force be sustained by an impoverished country through its own resources.
Faced with awesome U.S. military power, most Taliban fighters neither fight to the death nor surrender. They just go home to their villages, and wait to see what happens next. This is exactly what happened after the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.To contain continuing Taliban influence across a large swathe of the country would require effective, honest, representative and locally rooted Afghan civilian authorities. Is this possible, given the experience of the past 10 years?
The overwhelming probability therefore is that existing U.S. strategy will lead to a situation in which, once American troops withdraw from an active ground role, the Taliban will re-establish their control of the countryside and besiege the southern and eastern cities, which will be defended by a mixture of the Afghan National Army on the ground and U.S. firepower in the air. Because they will need their help in this war, the Taliban will be compelled to preserve their links to Al Qaeda, and continue to draw revenue from the heroin trade.
There will be an enduring risk that the weakness of the Afghan government and the deep ethnic divisions in the Afghan Army will intensify internal strife and face Washington with the choice of either reoccupying the country with ground troops or pulling out and leaving Afghanistan to its fate.
Faced with this reality, there is a growing consensus in the international community and among many U.S. experts on the idea of peace talks with the Taliban — not just to break away individual commanders, but to draw the movement as a whole into a peace settlement. And as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a key speech at the Asia Society in February, Pakistan will have to play an essential role in any settlement. In this way, Pakistan can be turned from Washington’s “problem” into an asset. Declaring U.S. readiness to “reconcile with an adversary,” Ms. Clinton spelled out three “red lines for reconciliation” with the Taliban: “They must renounce violence ... abandon their alliance with Al Qaeda, and abide by the Constitution.” Then came a crucially significant shift in the U.S. position. The three redlines were no longer described as pre-conditions but as objectives — as “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.”
There is also a growing recognition in the American establishment that the Afghan Constitution is not set in stone and can be renegotiated by Afghans themselves — including the Taliban. Ms. Clinton’s speech narrows the difference in approach between the United States and Pakistan, which has long insisted that the war can only be brought to an end by political, not military means, and that talks must begin without preconditions. It also closed the gap with America’s NATO allies in Europe, virtually all of whom have privately been calling for talks with the Taliban to secure a political solution.
In talks with the United States, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has suggested interim peace-building measures, intended both to lay the basis for later talks on a final settlement and to allow the U.S. to explore which leaders and elements in the Taliban are in fact ready for compromise. He has said that Pakistan stands ready to help in such a process. His call for a sequenced approach to a peace settlement involves in the first instance a mutual deescalation of violence to open the way for negotiations and offer an incentive to the Taliban to disavow Al Qaeda. Peace-building measures can include local cease-fires to instill trust for serious talks, which must be led by the Afghans themselves.
Other steps can also be taken to prepare the ground for political negotiations. An important step would be the creation of a Taliban office possibly in a Gulf country to encourage their transformation into a political actor from a fighting force. Such measures need be initiated without delay, for without them the prospect of an unending conflict looms, an outcome that is in nobody’s interest.
However, Gen. David Petraeus and the Pentagon have yet to accept the notion of talks with Taliban leaders. So far they have only embraced a policy of “reintegration,” which aims at splitting and weakening the Taliban, and not “reconciliation” which means negotiating with them. A European diplomat depicted this stance rather graphically: “the U.S. military only wants to talk with their boots on the Taliban’s neck.” This approach no longer enjoys the confidence either of the international community or of a majority of Americans. Above all the Afghans want an end to the fighting and a chance at peace.
ANATOL LIEVEN and MALEEHA LODHI, Bring in the Taliban, NY Times, April 22, 2011