Talking to the Taliban

As the United States fights a brutal counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, some commanders are trying a new tactic: negotiating with the Taliban.

David Furst/AFP/Getty Images
David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

In a dramatic shift, some U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan are now trying to negotiate with Afghan Taliban fighters to encourage them to "reintegrate." Although no program yet exists, the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul recently created a "cell" to address these efforts and formalize this outreach — a technique some commanders report they are already using.

Here in Logar province, commanders say they have contacted and negotiated with enemy fighters, even with no military guidelines in place. "I think it’s very important" said Col. David Haight, who commands Task Force Spartan, a brigade that covers troubled Wardak and Logar provinces.

"We have talked to people who have American blood on their hands," he added, citing Gen. David Petraeus’ doctrine: "You can’t kill or capture your way out of an insurgency."

Haight, an experienced and energetic infantry officer, is in charge of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade. His area of operations consists of two hotly contested provinces near Kabul, where he has pursued an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign. He and his troops attempt to clear out rebels and build up the local economy while working with Afghan security forces. But, he notes, without more troops he can’t keep some districts out of the hands of the Taliban — and is willing to try less conventional measures.

Matthew Sherman, a U.S. State Department official who advises Haight’s brigade, said: "There are many ways to get people off the battlefield. You can kill them, you can capture them, and you can talk to them, and we’re exploring all those options" in an effort that is "literally new."

The 3rd Brigade has received informal guidance on how to deal with enemy leaders in the form of "the three Ds": define, dialogue, and desist. Soldiers define a Taliban member’s "significance" in terms of his reach and influence. "You know, who is this guy?" Haight said. Then, dialogue, so "in the future, [you] gain some guy’s trust." Finally, desist. "Obviously, try to get him to commit to the process with a locally arranged reduction in violence."

Sherman notes that soldiers have attempted this technique with low-level local Taliban. In the future, he thinks, military forces will focus on "reintegrating" tactical and operational fighters. But the Afghan government, he says, will "[decide] on reconciliation with strategic and political leaders."

Haight says that though the insurgency’s strategic leaders may reside in Pakistan, the actual fighters his soldiers deal with are locals. He cites Baraki Barak, a mountainous region of Logar province, as a telling example. "The people that we’re fighting here on a daily basis in Baraki Barak are not from Pakistan," he said. "You know where they are from? They are from Baraki Barak!" And talking with them to help ameliorate fighting in their area might help.

Such a program has a well-known precedent in Iraq. There, U.S. forces talked to and even sometimes bribed Sunni tribesmen for their cooperation and for reduced violence. Sherman points out that there was initially U.S. resistance to the ultimately successful program.

He also says it refined the way the coalition forces understood the various opposition movements and groups in Iraq. "We made a fundamental shift in how we looked at [Shiite militant leader Moqtada al-] Sadr. There was [Sadr’s Mahdi Army]. There were the ‘special groups’ [of militia members]. There were political actors, and there were just criminals. But by looking at them in a new way we could focus on fighting the groups that were a real threat."

The new "cell" examining these outreach efforts is headed by Graeme Lamb, a retired British three-star general who worked in Iraq and was instrumental in talks that led to U.S. negotiation with Sunni tribesmen.

Among Afghan government officials, the subject of reconciliation comes up frequently. Governor Attiqullah Lodin, who heads the government in Logar province, claimed in a news conference this week that hundreds of anti-government forces have laid down their arms.

In Maydan Shahr, the small dusty capital of troubled Wardak province, opinion on the street favors negotiations. "You can send every American that exists to Afghanistan, but that won’t stop the fighting," argued a local pharmacy owner. "The only way to stop the fighting is by talking to the enemy."

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