Small Wars

This Week at War: Is it Time to Cut a Deal in Afghanistan?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

CHAHAR SIAB, AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar addresses a press conference at his headquarter in Chahar Saib, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, 12 January 1994. (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Bargaining in Afghanistan will open up new fissures

The New York Times reported on March 22 that Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with a delegation representing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of one of the three main insurgent groups fighting against the government and international military forces in the country. According to the Washington Post, Hekmatyar’s opening bid was a 15-point plan calling for the withdrawal of foreign military forces over the course of six months beginning in July, the appointment of an interim council to govern the country, a new constitution, and new national and local elections.

Before the arrival of Hekmatyar’s delegation, Karzai scheduled a peace conference for late April, which he hopes a broader range of insurgent groups, factions in parliament, and civil society organizations will attend.

One should not make too much of these developments. Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s August 2009 assessment of Afghanistan rated Hekmatyar’s force as the weakest of the three groups he is fighting. McChrystal also concluded that Hekmatyar has no geographical objectives and is just hoping to bargain for a role in a future Taliban government.

However, some bargaining process, even if notional, has likely begun. The various actors onstage in Afghanistan — Karzai and his allies, the various insurgent factions, elements of Pakistan’s government, and the U.S. government — will each make their own assessment of what could constitute an acceptable deal and whether continued fighting will get them closer or further away from their goals.

The U.S. "surge" of reinforcements is designed to increase the coalition’s bargaining leverage. Neither Karzai nor U.S. President Barack Obama’s team will see much reason to scale back their current objectives until this autumn when the results of the summer fighting season are in. Coalition leaders are hoping that continued attrition of Taliban leaders, both from ground combat and from drone strikes, might compel some of those leaders to seek a truce. From the Taliban’s perspective, each summer’s escalation of combat brings a new opportunity to apply political pain on electorates in Europe and North America. The Taliban’s dominant factions — the Quetta Shura led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Haqqani network — will likely also wait to see whether this summer’s combat might drive some less-committed coalition members out of the fight.

Although battlefield results should influence bargaining strategies, such logic might not apply in this case. For Afghan players like Karzai and the Taliban, there may be no incentive to settle no matter how much pressure they might come under. They understand that truces are likely to be broken; here the calculation switches to who can gain an advantage rearming during any lull in the fighting. 

Of course, U.S. policymakers will not see it that way. As in Vietnam in 1973, the United States will see a truce as an opportunity to declare victory. The weak South Vietnamese government saw the need to keep fighting no matter how badly its position deteriorated. It correctly judged any truce to be neither credible nor enforceable.

For now, Karzai and the Americans fight the Taliban. But as the bargaining process develops, the next struggle will be between Karzai and the Obama team.

Killer drones: our friends today, our worst fear tomorrow

On March 21, the Washington Post ran a profile of Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The article began with an anecdote that revealed an unexpected ruthlessness in the former congressman from Monterey, Calif.: A CIA Predator drone flying over Pakistan spotted terrorist suspect Baitullah Mehsud on the roof of a house, accompanied by his wife. Panetta ordered a missile strike that killed them both.

According to the article, since the beginning of 2009, CIA drones over Pakistan have killed 666 suspected terrorists and as many as 177 noncombatants (the CIA claims a lower figure). This drone killing rate is a marked acceleration from the George W. Bush years. This acceleration is partially explained by both the greater number of drones available for hunting and increased cooperation from Pakistan in identifying targets.But the stepped-up drone campaign also required the will of Obama and Panetta to aggressively employ the tactic.

The Obama administration’s unforgiving employment of hunter-killer robots over Pakistan is a conspicuous change from the ambivalence Panetta observed during his tour as President Bill Clinton‘s chief of staff. In his book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll describes how the Clinton White House agonized over what actions were permissible for dealing with Osama bin Laden. That vacillation came to haunt Clinton’s legacy. Perhaps Panetta now wants to make sure that no one gets away again.

Are there any legal or geographic limits on the CIA’s authority to observe and strike? The CIA claims that the program is legal but does not elaborate. Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University and a supporter of drones as a counterterrorism tool, warns that the U.S. government needs to explain its legal reasoning before lawsuits or even international arrest warrants threaten the government’s authority. Specifically, if it is legal for the CIA to employ Predator drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, what about remote reaches of Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the high seas? Can the United States shoot at any sorts of criminal suspects and not just al Qaeda suspects or their allies? What if the target is a U.S. citizen? Why is it legal for drones with missiles to do what an overseas FBI agent with a pistol cannot? Does any suspect deemed "too difficult to apprehend" become legally eligible for a Hellfire missile instead?

Finally, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution reminds us that the U.S. monopoly on lethal drones might end very soon. According to Singer, the technology is surprisingly cheap and accessible. Defending against drone attacks might soon become an overwhelming concern, not only for deployed U.S. military forces, but for military forces in garrison bases, which may be even more vulnerable than troops in the field. Then there is the problem of protecting U.S. political leaders from assassination by drone. One more worry to keep the Secret Service awake at night.

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