Give peace talks a chance
By Mehlaqa Samdani President Obama’s troop surge is designed to “strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future”. It is estimated that one-third of the 30,000 additional troops will be devoted to the training of Afghan police and army so as to “increase Afghanistan’s ...
By Mehlaqa Samdani
President Obama’s troop surge is designed to “strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future”. It is estimated that one-third of the 30,000 additional troops will be devoted to the training of Afghan police and army so as to “increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.”
While sending an additional 10,000 troops to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces sounds good in theory, many challenges remain in the development of these forces:
- Desertions in the Afghan army. According to data revealed by the US Defense Department and the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan, one in every four members of the ANA has quit the national army this past year.
- Enemy infiltrations. As evidenced by the killing of five British soldiers in Helmand last month, Taliban infiltration into Afghan security forces is a real concern. A recent, independent report commissioned by the EU cautioned “that desperate recruiters dropped their vetting standards in order to replace officers killed in dangerous southern provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, making it easier for insurgents to infiltrate police ranks.”
- Ethnic imbalance in the Afghan National Army. The composition of the Afghan National Army is predominantly Tajik. According to a recent report by the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan, while Tajiks make up 25 percent of the population of Afghanistan, they make up 41 percent of the ANA. This imbalance has served to cause further alienation among the Pashtun population.
- U.S. and NATO reliance on private Afghan militias for security. According to a report by the Center for International Cooperation at NYU, U.S. and NATO military units have used private security providers that “serve as ready-made militias that compete with state authority and are frequently run by former military commanders responsible for human rights abuses or involved in the illegal narcotics and black market economies.” This has served to undermine the central government as well as the development of the Afghan National Army.
Given these conditions, it is highly doubtful that a viable national Afghan security force can be produced by the July 2011 target deadline for beginning the withdrawal.
It is also unclear how the remaining 20,000 (or any number of) additional U.S. or NATO troops will ‘reverse the Taliban’s momentum‘ given that:
- The Taliban conduct guerrilla warfare where they do not directly confront the enemy; instead they carry out vicious hit and run (with a recent increased focus on IED) attacks and melt away into the country-side. Similar tactics have been used across the border in South Waziristan where the 30,000 troops deployed by the Pakistani military have experienced little resistance. The militants have instead moved out into adjacent tribal agencies from where they have launched horrific attacks against the Pakistan population
- The Taliban are no longer confined to the southern provinces where most of the additional troops will be sent. Instead, they have spread out across northern Afghanistan where they have carried out brazen attacks against the Northern Distribution Network. Despite its strategic significance, the north is unlikely to see an influx of troops.
Even if the surge somehow temporarily quells the violence in the south, it is unclear how the extra boots on the ground will resolve the larger question of Pashtun alienation, not just in the Afghan armed forces, but from the Kabul government in general.
The surge will also not address the concerns of the Taliban who remain ideologically committed to liberating their country from occupation. As one local commander in Helmand said recently, “We are fighting for our independence and for our country. We believe in our cause and the Americans should stop trying to bribe us…some of us will take their money, but none of us will ever give up our fight.”
These issues can only be addressed through a political settlement in which warring factions inside Afghanistan are brought together to discuss real and perceived grievances. The Obama administration would do well to facilitate the development of a coherent negotiation strategy — a few plans are already under discussion.
The Afghan government has proposed a traditional loya jirga, wherein a broad spectrum of Afghans would debate how to reconcile with the Taliban and maybe even have some Taliban participate. The Afghan government hopes to convene the jirga before parliamentary elections in June 2010.
Another proposal, leaked from the British foreign office, defines a ‘strategic initiative,’ which will operate at three levels: firstly “tactical,” involving reintegrating foot soldiers and their immediate commanders; secondly, “operational,” involving the reintegration of the Taliban’s “shadow governor,” senior commanders and their forces; and thirdly “strategic”– a settlement with Taliban leaders directing the counter-insurgency from across the border in Pakistan.
The British strategy seems to have some overlap with the Pakistani point of view that simply focusing on the rank and file of the Taliban movement will not resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis maintain, “A negotiating strategy can’t work unless the rebel leadership is involved, right up to Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the most dangerous insurgent faction, and Mullah Mohammed Omar.” And Karzai apparently agrees; he just told the Associated Press that he would be willing to enter talks with Mullah Omar himself.
The idea according to the Pakistanis is to “broker a deal to reduce Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a figurehead leader and divide power between the Pashtun Taliban and Afghanistan ‘s Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities.”
Whichever combination of strategies is pursued, it is clear that as long as foreign forces remain in Afghanistan, the Taliban will refuse to come to the negotiating table. However, a clear timeline for withdrawal, supplemented with the persuasion powers of the Saudis could compel some members of the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government.
Let’s hope, therefore, that by the time the December 2010 review rolls around, the Obama administration announces a more realistic and clearly defined exit strategy so as to give negotiations a chance.
Mehlaqa Samdani is a consultant and advisor to the CSIS Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project on Pakistan. She previously managed political development projects in Pakistan’s Punjab province and has also been involved with track-two peace initiatives between India and Pakistan.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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