The South Asia Channel

Roll back to find peace

After ten years of war and countless lives lost, the tragic murder of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier has focused renewed attention on the abundant flaws of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Coupled with the recent deadly riots in Afghanistan over the burning of Qurans by U.S. service members — and the retaliatory killing of ...

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

After ten years of war and countless lives lost, the tragic murder of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier has focused renewed attention on the abundant flaws of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Coupled with the recent deadly riots in Afghanistan over the burning of Qurans by U.S. service members — and the retaliatory killing of U.S. advisors by Afghan forces — these events place the failure of U.S. strategy in stark relief. The relationship with the Karzai government, America’s nominal ally, is frayed and torn. The Taliban, while bloodied, remain resilient and unbroken by the U.S. military surge. Lastly, the American people have made clear they want U.S. troops to come home sooner than the already announced end of combat operations in 2013 and the withdrawal of all foreign troops by 2014.

If ever there was a time to accelerate the process of ending the fighting in Afghanistan and spurring nascent political negotiations it is right now. For this reason, the United States should not wait a year and a half to begin the process of disengagement, but rather take immediate steps to end the war in Afghanistan now.

This would not mean accelerated and precipitous troop withdrawals.

Instead, it means dramatically curtailing offensive military operations against the Taliban including the ever controversial night raids; initiating and negotiating local cease fires with Taliban insurgents; and, more broadly, adopting a defensive posture by identifying key terrain that must be held by the Afghan government and limiting military operations to the defense of such critical areas. This could mean ceding territory to the Taliban, but it wouldn’t be the first time the United States has taken such an approach. These steps would be consistent with a responsible strategy for transition, which must be predicated on a realistic assessment of those parts of the country can be kept under Afghan governmental control after the U.S. departs.         

It also means completing the transfer of Taliban detainees in the Guantanamo Bay prison facility to the custody of Qatari authorities, who are now hosting a Taliban liaison office in Doha. Above all, it means ensuring that the stated policy of pursuing a political settlement with the Taliban finally be integrated with U.S. military policy.

Calibrating the use of force in such a fashion would represent a good faith measure toward building confidence and seeking a political resolution with the Taliban insurgency for ending the war in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban’s recent suspension of talks through its liaison office in Doha, a political settlement remains the only possible path to an orderly U.S. withdrawal, and to stability in Afghanistan. If the United States is not willing to expend political capital to nurture and further the process, the prospect for a negotiated settlement will collapse.

It has been said countless times that NATO cannot kill its way out of the war in Afghanistan. Yet, this is precisely the current U.S. strategy — and it is one that will likely ramp up with the traditional spring fighting season that begins soon. While the Obama administration has begun exploratory talks with the Taliban, it is the larger military effort that remains the dominant U.S. frame for the conflict.

Yet, the physical fight hardly promises much in the way of sustainable gains, and is arguably nothing more than tactical noise. Ironically, continued kinetic operations in Afghanistan, particularly the targeted killings of mid-level commanders, will undermine the prospects for a political settlement. Mullah Omar still retains considerable moral authority among the disparate groups that comprise the insurgency. But, as recent strains make clear, the longer the fighting goes on, the greater likelihood that the insurgency will become more fragmented and radicalized, and less amenable to heeding the directives of the Taliban’s central leadership.  

In reality, little of Afghanistan’s future will be determined by current U.S. military operations – and they may in fact be counter-productive. So why then should Americans or Afghans continue to die needlessly?

The rationale for a dramatic adjustment in U.S. policy is not simply driven by anti-war fervor, but rather a belief that measures geared toward spurring a political settlement are in the best long-term interests of the Afghan people, regional stability and the United States.

If the last two years have shown us anything it is that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily at a reasonable cost, especially when the insurgency can consistently regenerate itself and launch attacks from the safety of sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.

To be sure, a political process is fraught with risk and is far from assured of success. Still, it is the only viable approach for bringing bloodshed in Afghanistan to an end, and averting a potentially bloody civil war after the lion’s share of U.S. troops have returned home.

While there are still some signs of division among the insurgency, there are also multiple indications of interest among senior members of the Taliban to engage in political talks, including Mullah Omar’s ‘Eid statement in August 2011 acknowledging contacts with the United States, a series of exploratory talks with the United States and other intermediaries, and the public announcement of the establishment of a liaison office in Qatar for the purpose of negotiations.  Indeed, the Taliban leadership has publicly recognized the legitimacy of pursuing their goals via non-military means — and have made that case to their rank and file. Quite simply, it is no longer credible to argue that there is nothing to talk about with the Taliban or that the U.S. lacks a potential interlocutor among the insurgency.

The question for the United States is not whether the Taliban wants to talk; it’s how the U.S. can increase the chances for success.

And it’s not as if the Taliban are confused about immediate U.S. intentions. The President has made clear that the US is leaving Afghanistan in 2014 (as stated at the Lisbon Conference), and in recent weeks Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that U.S. combat operations will end by the middle of 2013. Everyone in the region understands that the U.S. presence will significantly decline in the next 18 months.  So why delay the inevitable? A break in fighting would allow all sides to more clearly explore the options for peace.

Critics will argue that a respite in the fighting would give the Taliban a clear military advantage, but there is another alternative — that serious olive branches to the Taliban will force them to clarify their political intentions and will strengthen their ability to bring along the recalcitrant fighters in their ranks. 

If the Taliban use a break in combat operations to ramp up their attacks on U.S. and Afghan government targets and/or shun the reconciliation process it will make clear their lack of interest in a political settlement.

This would inform the current discussions regarding a strategic partnership agreement (SPA) between the United States and Afghanistan. While current negotiations between the Karzai government and the United States over a reduced long-term military presence are proceeding slowly — but with some signs of progress — these talks would be clarified by a clearer understanding of the Taliban’s intentions. The discussions around the SPA would provide the Taliban with a decision point — if they want to rid their country completely of the "foreign occupier" then they will have to address this issue at the negotiating table, and by countenancing their own concessions. This would include, obviously, a public break with al-Qaeda, and a verifiable pledge that the terrorist organization will never again find shelter in Afghanistan.

If the Taliban view this proposed new U.S. military position as an opportunity to ramp up operations, the Afghan government will be more inclined to ensure that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will endure past 2014, albeit in reduced form. Under this scenario, the current military stalemate will be maintained, and with continued international support from the United States, chances of a Taliban takeover will continue to remain remote. From this standpoint the SPA serves as a hedge and a critical tool of leverage for the United States vis-à-vis the Taliban — by putting the ball squarely in the insurgents’ court.

In the end, the United States has nothing to lose by taking these steps in the pursuit of peace. Tactical gains in the near-term will not be decisive. But taking chances for peace and a long-term political settlement might just stop the war, put the region on the path to stability and above all, end the bloodletting in Afghanistan.

Michael Cohen and Michael Wahid Hanna are fellows at The Century Foundation.

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