Talking with the Taliban

Facing Reality in Afghanistan: Talking with the Taliban

By Aryn Baker / Kabul Monday, Oct. 13, 2008
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid leads his group in the mountains of volatile Helmand province
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid leads his group in the mountains of volatile Helmand province

As the world’s finance ministers wring their hands over the global financial crisis, a quieter multilingual chorus of dismay is emanating from the military compounds and foreign offices of one of the planet’s most powerful nations. Afghanistan, NATO’s first post–Cold War, non-European experiment and the U.N.’s most significant mission to date, has been termed a failure, leading many decision makers to contemplate the unthinkable: negotiations with the very same Taliban leadership that was defeated in 2001. The only problem is, negotiations are unlikely to be successful, and reliance on such stopgap solutions may only make things worse.

Among top military and diplomatic strategists, the failure of the current approach in Afghanistan has been accepted as inevitable. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s top military officer in Afghanistan, has said, “We’re not going to win this war.” At best, he says, international troops can hope to reduce it “to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat.” U.K. ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, in a leaked diplomatic briefing with the French deputy ambassador, is said to have described the current situation in Afghanistan as “bad; the security situation is getting worse — so is corruption — and the government [of President Hamid Karzai] has lost all trust.” The American strategy, he said, “is doomed to fail.”

While the U.K. foreign office disputes the veracity of the briefing, the sentiments are echoed in diplomatic circles across Kabul and have even found traction in the U.S., which has long persisted in regarding Afghanistan as the “good war.” Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told reporters last week that “the trends across the board are not going in the right direction,” and in a year in which violence has reached its worst levels since the U.S. invasion of the country in 2001, he voiced concerns that next year in Afghanistan could be even worse. His fears echo a nearly completed U.S. National Intelligence Assessment that has described a “downward spiral” in Afghanistan unless major improvements are immediately implemented. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has launched a major review of its Afghanistan policy just as new ground-based intelligence indicates that this winter may not yield the expected lull in fighting that would have allowed a deployment of extra troops to wait until the spring. U.S. and Afghan forces patrolling the eastern border near Pakistan have uncovered caches of cold-weather gear and weapons in areas that are usually closed off during winter snows.

The Impossibility of Winning

In June, Dan McNeil, the outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan, estimated that it would take some 400,000 troops to win the war. Currently, the total allied force stands at just over 70,000, with an additional 60,000 poorly equipped Afghan troops in various states of training. McNeil’s replacement, U.S. General David McKiernan, has appealed to the White House for 15,000 more U.S. troops “as quickly as possible” but has been promised less than half that number by spring of next year. More troops are unlikely to be forthcoming until the U.S. starts pulling out of Iraq. In the meantime, McKiernan has cautioned reporters that Afghanistan “might get worse before it gets better.”

With the global financial situation spiraling out of control, countries are even less likely to contribute troops and treasure to a war that seems, on its face, less threatening to the West by the day. Al-Qaeda has so far failed to replicate the devastating attacks of 9/11, and low-intensity efforts to keep Osama bin Laden on the run appear to have been effective. With the ebbing of public support for the war, and with casualties and costs reaching record levels, world leaders and military commanders are now clutching for solutions and exits, including possible power-sharing deals with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents. Kai Eide, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, said on Oct. 6 that “if you want to have relevant results, you must speak to those who are relevant.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reiterated the new philosophy a day later, saying at a press conference that the only way to win the war was “through political means.”

President Karzai seems to be moving in the same direction. Last week he appealed to Taliban leader Mullah Omar for peace and offered to talk. And in September, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, representatives of Karzai’s government sat with former Taliban leaders and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Mecca to discuss Afghanistan’s problems over a sunset feast of more than 100 dishes. Both Karzai’s government and Afghanistan’s current Taliban leadership deny that any negotiations took place. But one of the attendees, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former representative of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Pakistan before its overthrow in 2001, characterized the meeting to TIME as a “consultation about the future of Afghanistan, about stability, about peace and what we can do to bring it to our country.”

The Plausibility of a Taliban Pact

Reconciliation with the opposition is an inevitable part of the end of any war, and no leader, military or otherwise, has ever said that total military victory is the only path to a stable Afghanistan. But the sudden courting of Taliban leaders appears to be more an act of desperation than strategy.

The problem with any potential Taliban agreement lies in incentives. Chaos in Afghanistan has always played to the Taliban’s advantage, which makes the notion that its leaders could be seduced by promises of stability myopic. Besides, Zaeef, who is no longer a member of the Taliban leadership but still adheres to the Taliban philosophy, says the Taliban are not fighting for power but for ideology. “Until the Americans and other foreigners leave, this war is not for share in the government, but a war of obligation, a holy jihad.”

Taliban spokesman Zaibullah Mujahid took it a step further, telling TIME by telephone that “no one from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the name of the country under Taliban rule from 1996-2001] is ready to negotiate with this government. The conditions that the government and the Americans offer is that the Taliban accept the constitution and the presence of American and other foreign troops in Afghanistan. Our condition would be the withdrawal of all foreign troops, and without that we are not ready to negotiate.”

While the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda has frayed over the years, bin Laden’s group is still a principal financial supporter, and as such would have input on major decisions that the Taliban make. Needless to say, it will be impossible for any negotiations to take place unless the Taliban renounce all ties with the terrorist group. That’s an unlikely scenario, says Zaeef. “I am not sure the Taliban will say to al-Qaeda, ‘Leave the country and don’t support us,’ because there is no one else funding the Taliban, so there is no way they would beak with their key supporters.”

Disaffection Inside the Taliban

Even if Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Karzai were able to overcome their glaring differences to hammer out a power-sharing agreement, the real question would be: How much power could Mullah Omar actually wield?

While he does hold sway over a large mass of the former Taliban command structure, which has largely taken refuge in Pakistan’s lawless mountain sanctuaries, the bulk of what is currently known as the Taliban in Afghanistan is made up of disaffected and alienated bands of Pashtun tribesmen who have been leveraged out of their traditional power bases and are disillusioned by the increasingly corrupt and ineffective government in Kabul. The only point that these groups — some of which are made up of opportunistic criminals, narcotics kingpins and smugglers — can agree on is that they are against the Afghan government.

Any true reconciliation would have to include these groups, as well as the Taliban leadership, and that is an almost inconceivable task. “The West tends to imagine a rather more coherent organization than the Taliban really is,” says Joanna Nathan, Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They imagine there is a single element of control over a wider organization. This view that it is somehow going to be Mullah Omar sitting at one end of the table while President Karzai sits at the other as they sign a power-sharing agreement and we can all go home — that is a fantasy.”

A better strategy might be to cut at the roots of this dissatisfaction with the central government. The Taliban has capitalized on widespread disillusion with corrupt, centrally appointed officials to recruit to its cause. Few Afghans feel that they have an adequate outlet for settling grievances, like land disputes, so they are more likely to turn to Taliban courts that have sprung up in government vacuums. Real reconciliation, says Nathan, should be taking place at the grass roots, with Afghans who have become alienated from the government. If they can be persuaded that the government is looking after their needs, they are less likely to support the Taliban.

This approach would also be much more palatable to Afghans from the largely non-Pashtun north, who bitterly fought Taliban rule during the civil war and are more likely to launch another war than submit to a Taliban-led government. The Taliban today operate in virtually every Afghan province, and in several places they have been able to create a parallel system of government, but they do not have the support of a majority of Afghans. Most still vividly remember the deprivations of Taliban rule, and if given a choice, they would prefer their current situation to that of eight years ago. The international community has already wasted seven years and billions of dollars in failed attempts to reverse the depredations of Taliban rule; a far better solution to the Talibans’ resurgence would be correcting the mistakes of the past and delivering, for once, on international promises of democracy and development.

— With reporting by Ali Safi / Kabul


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