Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Reconciliation With the Taliban May Be Too Little Too Late

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on February 1, 2010

With the United States, Great Britain, and Germany extending their military campaigns in Afghanistan, the western-backed government of Hamid Karzai is on its last legs.

Politically, the landlocked Islamic country is divided between two equally fragmented sides; a Taliban Movement that continues to sweep into Afghan provinces and exert its authority, and a corrupt coalition of warlords and Karzai loyalists struggling to act as a legitimate government.  In fact, Afghan politics is so divided along tribal and sectarian lines that the parliament has twice rejected Karzai’s list of ministerial candidates.  And unfortunately, more tit-for-tat in Kabul leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Afghan citizens; many of whom already complain of dismal representation, inadequate personal freedoms, and a lack of personal safety.

Most of this could be managed if Afghanistan faced a weak and simple adversary.  But as is evident from the sophisticated violence and propaganda savvy of the enemy, Mullah Omar & Company is anything but one-dimensional.  In fact, Karzai’s government has become so incompetent on the national front that every blunder creates new opportunities and symbolic victories for the Taliban’s Shadow Government.

Socially, domestic infrastructure couldn’t be worse.  Healthy drinking water rarely circulates where it needs to be.  Electricity is virtually absent outside the capital city, impeding the type of entrepreneurism that could potentially strengthen the Afghan state.  Despite a crack-down on drug cultivation, Afghanistan is still the primary producer of opium for the world market.  And all of this comes at a time when neighboring Pakistan is preoccupied with its own Islamic-extremist problem.

So with all of these issues obstructing the U.S. mission (which has shifted from democracy building to counterinsurgency over the past year) world leaders have decided to unite together in London for a single purpose: divide the Taliban and reintegrate the insurgency’s rank and file back into mainstream Afghan culture.

Economic assistance and military resolve were obviously high on the meeting’s agenda.  The United States and Great Britain in particular have a vested interest in improving tactics and coordination on the battlefield.  But while both of these issues were indeed important, the primary objective of the Afghanistan summit was to create a reintegration campaign that could entice low and mid-level Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

There is no question that a reconciliation strategy is needed in order to improve the overall situation in Afghanistan.  As global sentiment tells us, the U.S. is not the only one that wants such a strategy to take place.

The plan would promise Taliban fighters land and an economic lifesaver in exchange for an end to violence and realignment towards the central government.  A denunciation of Al’Qaeda would also be demanded if Taliban members want full criminal immunity (let’s remember that destroying Al’Qaeda sanctuaries was the original goal for the United States in Afghanistan).

With this bargaining approach, the hope is that a large swathe of Taliban fighters- those who joined the insurgency out of intimidation or economic pressure- would put down their guns and participate in the political process.  In theory, Mullah Omar and his core followers would then lose a vast portion of their membership, thereby weakening their position relative to Karzai and his coalition defenders.

A great strategy indeed.  I am hopeful that the international community can come to some sort of agreement on this issue.  The problem lies not in the plan per say, but rather the time it is being pursued.

Every right-minded scholar in South Asian affairs agrees that some sort of political deal in Afghanistan needs to take place.  Likewise, common sense dictates that conventional military tactics will not end the war in Afghanistan by itself.  This is one of the reasons why President Barack Obama signed General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation for a new and revamped counterinsurgency approach.  But what people can debate is whether reconciliation with the Taliban will work given the present circumstances.

In almost every province, the Taliban Movement has established quasi-control over the Afghan population.  Sharia-sponsored courts have been rather effective at solving personal disputes between citizens; a judicial structure that the Afghan Government has yet to put into practice.  Attacks on government compounds and improvised-explosive devices aimed towards coalition troops occur on a regular basis.  And while the ASF vastly outnumbers the 25,000 or so Taliban insurgents, their quality is anything but satisfactory in terms of western standards.

What is more, Karzai’s supporters are highly polarizing individuals in the eyes of many Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.  If parliament’s rejection of ministerial candidates is any indication, Karzai himself is a divisive figure.

In short, the U.S. and its allies are on their heels in virtually every single issue, while Taliban authorities continue to boost their credentials by taking advantage of Karzai’s mistakes.  Say what you want about the movement, but the Taliban is a talented organization.  They have managed to attain a certain level of security that all Afghans have been praying for.

When your enemy is in a position of strength, is there any incentive to give up the fight and surrender to the weaker side?  As long as the insurgents are able to coordinate with relative ease against soft government targets and U.S./NATO troops, foot soldiers sympathetic with the Taliban will view any reconciliation deal as an insult to their intelligence.

Think about it; if you were a 250 pound body builder in the ring against a 150 pound string-bean, would you deliberately take the fall?

With the United States, Great Britain, and Germany extending their military campaigns in Afghanistan, the western-backed government of Hamid Karzai is on its last legs.

Politically, the landlocked Islamic country is divided between two equally fragmented sides; a Taliban Movement that continues to sweep into Afghan provinces and exert its authority, and a corrupt coalition of warlords and Karzai loyalists struggling to act as a legitimate government. In fact, Afghan politics is so divided along tribal and sectarian lines that the parliament has twice rejected Karzai’s list of ministerial candidates. And unfortunately, more tit-for-tat in Kabul leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Afghan citizens; many of whom already complain of dismal representation, inadequate personal freedoms, and a lack of personal safety.

Most of this could be managed if Afghanistan faced a weak and simple adversary. But as is evident from the sophisticated violence and propaganda savvy of the enemy, Mullah Omar & Company is anything but one-dimensional. In fact, Karzai’s government has become so incompetent on the national front that every blunder creates new opportunities and symbolic victories for the Taliban’s Shadow Government.

Socially, domestic infrastructure couldn’t be worse. Healthy drinking water rarely circulates where it needs to be. Electricity is virtually absent outside the capital city, impeding the type of individual entrepreneurism that could potentially strengthen the Afghan state. Despite a crack-down on drug cultivation, Afghanistan is still the primary producer of opium for the world market. And all of this comes at a time when neighboring Pakistan is preoccupied with its own Islamic-extremist problem.

So with all of these issues obstructing the U.S. mission (which has shifted from democracy building to counterinsurgency over the past year) world leaders have decided to unite together in London for a single purpose: divide the Taliban and reintegrate the insurgency’s rank and file back into mainstream Afghan culture.

Economic assistance and military resolve were obviously high on the meeting’s agenda. The United States and Great Britain in particular have a vested interest in improving tactics and coordination on the battlefield. But while both of these issues were indeed important, the primary objective of the Afghanistan summit was to create a reintegration campaign that could entice low and mid-level Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

There is no question that a reconciliation strategy is needed in order to improve the overall situation in Afghanistan. As global sentiment tells us, the U.S. is not the only one that wants such a strategy to take place.

The plan would promise Taliban fighters land and an economic lifesaver in exchange for an end to violence and realignment towards the central government. A denunciation of Al’Qaeda would also be demanded if Taliban members want full criminal immunity (let’s remember that destroying Al’Qaeda sanctuaries was the original goal for the United States in Afghanistan).

With this bargaining approach, the hope is that a large swathe of Taliban fighters- those who joined the insurgency out of intimidation or economic pressure- would put down their guns and participate in the political process. In theory, Mullah Omar and his core followers would then lose a vast portion of their membership, thereby weakening their position relative to Karzai and his coalition defenders.

A great strategy indeed. I am hopeful that the international community can come to some sort of agreement on this issue. The problem lies not in the plan per say, but rather the time it is being pursued.

Every right-minded scholar in South Asian affairs agrees that some sort of political deal in Afghanistan needs to take place. Likewise, common sense dictates that conventional military tactics will not end the war in Afghanistan by itself. This is one of the reasons why President Barack Obama signed General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation for a new and revamped counterinsurgency approach. But what people can debate is whether reconciliation with the Taliban will work given the present circumstances.

In almost every province, the Taliban Movement has established quasi-control over the Afghan population. Sharia-sponsored courts have been rather effective at solving personal disputes between citizens; a judicial structure that the Afghan Government has yet to put into practice. Attacks on government compounds and improvised-explosive devices aimed towards coalition troops occur on a regular basis. And while the ASF vastly outnumbers the 25,000 or so Taliban insurgents, their quality is anything but satisfactory in terms of western standards.

What is more, Karzai’s supporters are highly polarizing individuals in the eyes of many Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. If parliament’s rejection of ministerial candidates is any indication, Karzai himself is a divisive figure.

In short, the U.S. and its allies are on their heels in virtually every single issue, while Taliban authorities continue to boost their credentials by taking advantage of Karzai’s mistakes. Say what you want about the movement, but the Taliban is a talented organization. They have managed to attain a certain level of security that all Afghans have been praying for.

When your enemy is in a position of strength, is there any incentive to give up the fight and surrender to the weaker side? As long as the insurgents are able to coordinate with relative ease against soft government targets and U.S./NATO troops, foot soldiers sympathetic with the Taliban will view any reconciliation deal as an insult to their intelligence.

Think about it; if you were a 250 pound body builder in the ring against a 150 pound string-bean, would you deliberately take the fall?

With the United States, Great Britain, and Germany extending their military campaigns in Afghanistan, the western-backed government of Hamid Karzai is on its last legs.

Politically, the landlocked Islamic country is divided between two equally fragmented sides; a Taliban Movement that continues to sweep into Afghan provinces and exert its authority, and a corrupt coalition of warlords and Karzai loyalists struggling to act as a legitimate government. In fact, Afghan politics is so divided along tribal and sectarian lines that the parliament has twice rejected Karzai’s list of ministerial candidates. And unfortunately, more tit-for-tat in Kabul leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Afghan citizens; many of whom already complain of dismal representation, inadequate personal freedoms, and a lack of personal safety.

Most of this could be managed if Afghanistan faced a weak and simple adversary. But as is evident from the sophisticated violence and propaganda savvy of the enemy, Mullah Omar & Company is anything but one-dimensional. In fact, Karzai’s government has become so incompetent on the national front that every blunder creates new opportunities and symbolic victories for the Taliban’s Shadow Government.

Socially, domestic infrastructure couldn’t be worse. Healthy drinking water rarely circulates where it needs to be. Electricity is virtually absent outside the capital city, impeding the type of individual entrepreneurism that could potentially strengthen the Afghan state. Despite a crack-down on drug cultivation, Afghanistan is still the primary producer of opium for the world market. And all of this comes at a time when neighboring Pakistan is preoccupied with its own Islamic-extremist problem.

So with all of these issues obstructing the U.S. mission (which has shifted from democracy building to counterinsurgency over the past year) world leaders have decided to unite together in London for a single purpose: divide the Taliban and reintegrate the insurgency’s rank and file back into mainstream Afghan culture.

Economic assistance and military resolve were obviously high on the meeting’s agenda. The United States and Great Britain in particular have a vested interest in improving tactics and coordination on the battlefield. But while both of these issues were indeed important, the primary objective of the Afghanistan summit was to create a reintegration campaign that could entice low and mid-level Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

There is no question that a reconciliation strategy is needed in order to improve the overall situation in Afghanistan. As global sentiment tells us, the U.S. is not the only one that wants such a strategy to take place.

The plan would promise Taliban fighters land and an economic lifesaver in exchange for an end to violence and realignment towards the central government. A denunciation of Al’Qaeda would also be demanded if Taliban members want full criminal immunity (let’s remember that destroying Al’Qaeda sanctuaries was the original goal for the United States in Afghanistan).

With this bargaining approach, the hope is that a large swathe of Taliban fighters- those who joined the insurgency out of intimidation or economic pressure- would put down their guns and participate in the political process. In theory, Mullah Omar and his core followers would then lose a vast portion of their membership, thereby weakening their position relative to Karzai and his coalition defenders.

A great strategy indeed. I am hopeful that the international community can come to some sort of agreement on this issue. The problem lies not in the plan per say, but rather the time it is being pursued.

Every right-minded scholar in South Asian affairs agrees that some sort of political deal in Afghanistan needs to take place. Likewise, common sense dictates that conventional military tactics will not end the war in Afghanistan by itself. This is one of the reasons why President Barack Obama signed General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation for a new and revamped counterinsurgency approach. But what people can debate is whether reconciliation with the Taliban will work given the present circumstances.

In almost every province, the Taliban Movement has established quasi-control over the Afghan population. Sharia-sponsored courts have been rather effective at solving personal disputes between citizens; a judicial structure that the Afghan Government has yet to put into practice. Attacks on government compounds and improvised-explosive devices aimed towards coalition troops occur on a regular basis. And while the ASF vastly outnumbers the 25,000 or so Taliban insurgents, their quality is anything but satisfactory in terms of western standards.

What is more, Karzai’s supporters are highly polarizing individuals in the eyes of many Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. If parliament’s rejection of ministerial candidates is any indication, Karzai himself is a divisive figure.

In short, the U.S. and its allies are on their heels in virtually every single issue, while Taliban authorities continue to boost their credentials by taking advantage of Karzai’s mistakes. Say what you want about the movement, but the Taliban is a talented organization. They have managed to attain a certain level of security that all Afghans have been praying for.

When your enemy is in a position of strength, is there any incentive to give up the fight and surrender to the weaker side? As long as the insurgents are able to coordinate with relative ease against soft government targets and U.S./NATO troops, foot soldiers sympathetic with the Taliban will view any reconciliation deal as an insult to their intelligence.

Think about it; if you were a 250 pound body builder in the ring against a 150 pound string-bean, would you deliberately take the fall?

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist

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6 Responses

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  1. Globeman said, on February 1, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    The idea that there is such a thing as a “moderate” Taliban and that they are amenable to being wooed by the current plan is sheer folly and ignore some basic facts. The Taliban are essentially the creation of the Pakistan Military. Any plan that is not acceptable to the paranoid Pakistani establishment is simply not on or likely to be successful. The history of the role of the ISI and Pakistani Army are long and intertwined with strategic demands by Pakistan which are articulated by the government and the military. Imagine if you will, Mr Qureshi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister earnestly arguing for a greater role for Pashtuns in Afghanistan. One can only realize the irony in this statement if one realizes the extent of neglect and paranoia associated with Pakistani policy towards their own pashtun population, let alone, arguing for resurgent Pashtun identity on the Afghan side of the border.

    Why is it so difficult to see through the charade? Pakistan’s paranoia about India is only part of the problem. Memories are long and in ways that confound political analysts constitutes motives that are rooted in age old animosities and fear that has kept Pashtuns where they are on both sides of the border.

    Granted that the Pashtuns have been their own worst enemy – but the their political economy, controlled by other, have done much to produce the co-opted model of governance through coercion and bribery. The sad part is that once again the international community is buying into yet another bad idea to help the Pashtuns. The silence is deafening! Instead of providing real genuine development and a new organizing principle where security must produce results to allow for development to take hold, is sadly being replaced with the “easy” way out.

    The Afghan Government and its well wishers are now part of the easy solution.

  2. Sawaran said, on February 1, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    What an embarrassingly short-sighted move. A decision made on assumption and confusion based on lies. Looks like someone is desperate for a quick fix to getting troops out of Afghanistan.

    Why were we there to begin with? WHY?
    and don’t give me that “security over there, security over here” junk, I’m an informed adult.

  3. boontee said, on February 1, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    The West is backing on the wrong horse. Why support a president supposedly put to power via rigged election and by only one-third of the population?

    Does he have a reliable and responsible government to back him up? Yet he is talking about planning to engage and empower the Taliban.

  4. happyfish18 said, on February 1, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    It is high time for the US and the West to quit Afghanistan and stop playing the Great Game like the Brits of the 18th century unless they want to bleed a slow death.

    First Kaizai is a Taliban Hugger, and the US has to spend 10 billions a month to sustain their war effort in the AfgPak theatre and keep politicians from defecting to flush out the “One Man” who is probably safely ensconed in Yemen or in Karachi by now. Every day, corrupt Afghan politicians and bureaucrats shipped out 10 million US dollars to safe custody in Western banks.

    The US cannot even ensure safe passage for its own Supply logistics let alone set up secure safe areas in the country. Hence the US is paying the Taliban runners tens of million USD to ensure the Talibans will not attack their essential logistics. The Talibans will still blow up a few trucks from time to time and hold drivers hostage to demand ever bigger logistic payments. The Talibans are growing richer and stronger by the day with the US logistics payments, ransom money and drugs shipped to the West.

    If you are making these type of money, I don’t think the Talibans are interested to sit down and talk to quit. Ask any Somali pirate.

  5. sadoshah said, on February 1, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I wish to draw attention to the western nations that Talibans are not your enemies.There is yet not a single concrete evidence that they were directly involved in hitting the western nations abroad. I am pretty convinced that most of the incurtions were inside jobs mostly for economical gains by special interested groups.Then the question arises as to why they are there? I presume if they get out from there the Quagmire will solve itself but factories churning weapons may not. I bet the so called Taliban want to see the backs of invaders getting out of thier country.

  6. Don (Mma Pound for Pound) said, on February 13, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Really new to this thing, still learning about this thing. This is a great thing that my friend recommended to me, I never getting involved with it but soon will be, thanks! 🙂


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