Smoke and Mirrors in Kabul

Don't believe the hype about reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban -- this war isn't even close to over.


For the past two weeks, reputable U.S. and British newspapers have been filled with articles touting progress in negotiations between the government in Kabul and Afghanistan’s major insurgent groups. On Oct. 20, for example, the New York Times reported that Afghan reconciliation talks "involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership." These articles have been accompanied by optimistic reports that the United States and its NATO allies have decimated the Taliban’s leadership in southern Afghanistan.

As someone who has fought in Afghanistan on two occasions and served briefly as a civilian advisor to the NATO command group there in 2009, I hope the reports are true. The idea that an end to the fighting in Afghanistan and the involvement of the 100,000 U.S. troops in the country might be just around the corner is seductive. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of the reporting coming out of Kabul and Washington.

Civil wars and insurgencies such as the one in Afghanistan usually end through some kind of negotiated settlement between the antagonists. The United States’ war-weary public is clearly eager to bring the majority of U.S. troops home, and the NATO command in Afghanistan has prioritized reconciliation just as much as fighting the Taliban and training the Afghan national security forces. Much time has been spent determining both the red lines of NATO and its Afghan partners and those areas in which they could compromise with the insurgent groups.

But Afghans are perfectly comfortable talking while still fighting. So too, at least in practice, are the United States and its allies: In insurgencies from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, we have negotiated with insurgents while combat operations were ongoing. In the American public’s mind, however, wars take place sequentially: First, you fight; second, you negotiate a settlement. The word "negotiations" conjures up hopes for an end to the conflict in the minds of Americans and other Westerners — when all that really might be occurring is another round of jockeying for position between Afghanistan’s warring political forces.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who carried out an otherwise responsible review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the fall of 2009, blundered when he publicly announced that the United States would begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. Within the ranks of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups and even among our allies and the civilians in the country, this date was interpreted to mean that a total withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces was imminent. No insurgent group, to paraphrase defense analyst Stephen Biddle, was about to accept a loaf of bread when the bakery was on offer. Why would the Taliban and other insurgent groups negotiate when the United States was on its way out already?

The problem of Afghanistan’s varied insurgent groups also complicates reconciliation talks. Of the three principal insurgent groups, only Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) might be considered ripe for any kind of reconciliation with the government in Kabul. But the HIG is arguably the least significant of the major insurgent groups, and even then, Gulbuddin himself would not likely be allowed to play a role in an Afghan government.

Of the other two groups, the Haqqani network, under the leadership of Sirajuddin Siraj Haqqani, maintains strong ties to al Qaeda and is considered more or less irreconcilable, while the Quetta Shura Taliban is thought to be reconcilable only if Mullah Mohammed Omar himself approves of the reconciliation process. The insurgents in Afghanistan are no more unitary an actor than the Afghan government or the NATO coalition, further complicating negotiations.


All that, to make matters worse, assumes the insurgent groups are independent actors. The reality, though, is that negotiations between the insurgent groups and the government in Kabul will only go so far as the Pakistani security services allow. Some Western analysts took heart in Pakistan’s decision in February to arrest Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. At the time, however, the arrest of Mullah Baradar, who was in negotiations with the government in Kabul, was interpreted by the Taliban rank and file to be a stark warning to those who would negotiate without the permission of the Pakistani government, under whose patronage and protection the Taliban has operated east of the Durand Line since 2005. Today it is widely accepted that this was indeed the case and that Pakistan deliberately thwarted negotiations between the Quetta Shura Taliban and the government in Kabul to serve its own parochial interests. Since that event, there is no sign that Pakistan’s powerful military has taken a softer line on negotiations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul.

Finally, if one surveys the history of civil wars and insurgencies, the evidence for negotiations leading to a more secure environment — without robust security operations first setting the conditions for those negotiations — is weak. The way the U.S. military established control over the population in Baghdad in 2007, by contrast, contributed to an environment that not only led formerly malign Sunni insurgents to join local security forces, but also provided time and space for a more peaceful political process to move forward.

But here a sliver of hope remains. Although the reporting of how the United States and its allies have "routed" the Taliban in southern Afghanistan has been very thinly sourced, it is clear the U.S. military has been attempting, in Afghanistan, to replicate the success it had in Iraq in 2007 — destroying the mid-level operational leadership of the insurgent groups, which in turn collapsed the networks and rendered them ineffective.

However, very little of what is taking place in southern Afghanistan can be known with any certainty. Journalists have been denied access to ongoing military operations and, though it is believed that the U.S. military and its allies have indeed been degrading the Taliban and its ability to reconstitute its organization once the fighting season resumes in the spring, questions remain: Did the U.S. military wait until too late in the fighting season to inflict serious damage on the Taliban before its fighters withdrew for the winter? Is the current drop in insurgent attacks any different from the normal seasonal drop in attacks that precedes the onset of winter? Is the degradation of the Taliban’s organization forcing it to the negotiation table? And has the Taliban realized that the United States is not, in fact, leaving in July 2011?

It might be quite some time before we know the answers to these questions. For now, though, we can be sure of one thing: The two hopeful front-page articles in the New York Times this week relied heavily, almost exclusively, on sources within the International Security Assistance Force command in Kabul. Both articles suggest that the ability of Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, to deliver the message he wants via the U.S. media has followed him intact from Iraq. It is still unclear whether the United States and its allies have managed to capture momentum in Afghanistan. In Washington, however, this narrative already appears to have won the day.

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