The South Asia Channel

The Fog of Peace

Afghanistan policy, like Vietnam policy before it, has taken on a life of its own, impervious to ground truth. The simple reality is that "peace talks" with the Taliban have no chance whatever of a positive outcome from the perspective of U.S. policy. Just as it did in Vietnam, the United States has been fighting ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Afghanistan policy, like Vietnam policy before it, has taken on a life of its own, impervious to ground truth. The simple reality is that "peace talks" with the Taliban have no chance whatever of a positive outcome from the perspective of U.S. policy. Just as it did in Vietnam, the United States has been fighting the wrong war in Afghanistan with the wrong strategy from the very beginning.

In Vietnam, the United States was ideologically hell-bent on fighting a war against communism, and shaped its strategy accordingly. For nearly a decade in Afghanistan, the United States has insisted on fighting a secular war, a counterinsurgency, against a religious movement.  However, our enemy in North Vietnam was not fighting a war for communism, and in Afghanistan our enemies are not fighting an insurgency. They are fighting a jihad, and no South Asian jihad in history has ever ended in a negotiated settlement. And this one will not either.  There is no overlap between the way insurgencies and charismatic religious movements of this archetype in the Pashtun belt end.  Insurgencies by definition have both political and military arms. Regardless of what they have learned to say, the Taliban does not.  One hundred percent of the  movement’s leaders are Muslim clerics. After fighting a second war in Asia the wrong way for almost a decade, the United States is now again desperately seeking a way out of the quagmire from within the wrong set of potential outcomes.

The primary reasons why "peace talks" are delusional are three fold:  First, there is no"Taliban" in the sense the proponents of talks envision it. To believe so is cultural mirroring at its peak.  Second, the enemy is interested in pre-withdrawal concessions, not a settlement, in an alien culture in which seeking negotiations to end a war is surrender. To believe otherwise is simply wishful thinking. And third, no understanding with senior clerics in the Taliban movement has ever out lived the airplane flight back to New York. Like a second marriage, trusting the "Taliban" to keep a bargain is a victory of hope over experience.

First, the best way to understand the "Taliban" is not as a political entity that can carry out negotiations, but as an event in time analogous to the First Crusade.  It is a loose network of military-religious orders which share a common goal, quite similar to the Crusader orders, which  included the Knights Templar, Knights of Malta, and the Knights Hospitaller. The "Taliban" is comprised of similar military-religious orders, including, to name a few, the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, the Tora Bora Front, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Lashkar-i-Taiba, Hisb-i-Islami Khalis, and Hisb-i-Islami Gulbuddin.  Like the crusaders, who shared a common purpose and owed allegiance to the Pope in Rome, the "Taliban" groups share a common purpose and acknowledge the religious supremacy of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Amir-ul-Mumaneen, or "Leader of the Faithful," in Quetta.  And like the crusader groups, the "Taliban" groups have no real "political wing," because in the jihadist mindset now ascendant in the Pashtun region, Islam and governance are not separate entities. The church and the state cannot be disaggregated in this way.

Just as the Knights of Malta did not agree on policy matters with the Knights Templar, and carried out radically different strategies in the Holy Land, so the various groups of the jihad often fundamentally disagree with one another on how to achieve their common goal of establishing religious rule over disputed territory. Each jihadist group has, just as each crusader group had, its own unique and complex internal dynamics. And, just as the Pope was distant from the Holy Land, Mullah Omar is distant physically and operationally from the central battlefields in Afghanistan. The course of events in Afghanistan, as were those on the ground in Acre, Tyre, or Jerusalem, are decided by local dynamics, events, and power struggles — not by the Pope, and not by Mullah Omar. Just as the Vatican had no practical control over the behavior of the Knights Templar on the ground in Jerusalem, the Quetta Shura has none over the operational activities of the Haqqani Network, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, or even its own local commanders fighting in Afghanistan. Even if one could find bonafide representatives of the Quetta Shura, and not a conartist Quetta cobbler as was the case last time, the Quetta Shura cannot control events in Afghanistan any more than the Vatican could control events in the Holy Land in the eleventh century.

Second, the motives of any such representatives simply do not now and will never coincide with our own. The Quetta Shura has no genuine interest whatsoever in any "peace talks" or negotiations except to gain concessions such as the release of their comrades in Guantanamo Bay. They have fought for almost 20 years for control of Afghanistan and are now within two years of the withdrawal of foreign troops. As the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) makes unequivocally clear, they have not in anyway changed their intent to retake control of Afghanistan and reestablish their Islamist state. If they had any interest in genuine talks, they would hardly have assassinated Berhanuddin Rabanni, head of the Afghan High Peace Council and the Karzai regime’s lead negotiator, last year. 

Furthermore, although the Pentagon has added the imaginary golden fabric of "progress" and the imaginary significance of the "attrition of mid-level leadership" to the emperor’s new clothes of peace talks in Afghanistan, both of these are simply fictitious. The reality is, despite all the Pentagon smoke and mirrors, the new NIE shows there has been no sustainable progress in Afghanistan, and the enemy still has a virtually unlimited supply of soldiers and leaders. There are hundreds of thousands of recruits waiting to join the cause in Pakistan, every village has a mullah to lead them on the battlefield, and the madrassas of Pakistan produce hundreds of new militant mullahs every year. They have extensive direct and indirect military support from the Pakistani government and army. And just as the Saigon government was in Vietnam in 1970, the Karzai kleptocracy in Kabul is illegitimate, incompetent, and utterly unpopular in Afghanistan today. As the desertion of a third of the tiny Afghan National Army each year proves, almost no one except Americans and Britons are willing to die for it. On a good day, the Afghan National Army has perhaps 100,000 men under arms.  In a sobering comparison, the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) had more than a million men under arms, including a large, modern air force, in a country one quarter the size of Afghanistan, and it collapsed in three weeks of fighting in 1976. The Taliban, who have studied American military history, fully understand this calculus.

Finally, the last nail in the coffin for "peace talks" is simply pragmatic. The Taliban in its original, unsplintered form, was a notoriously unreliable partner in discussions. In seeking to mediate with its elements between 1996 and 2001, foreign groups representing every interest from health care to oil pipelines to preservation of antiquities found that every "understanding" with the Taliban had completely unraveled before the foreign negotiators had even landed back in New York or London. The Taliban of 1996-2001, which was infinitely more centralized and controllable than it is today, never kept a single such agreement for more than a week. 

In summary, wishful thinking aside, there is no central, political entity called the "Taliban" with whom to negotiate. The enemy is not interested in "peace talks" when they are convinced they have already won a complete victory against a hated and infidel puppet regime and an American puppeteer they now see as weak. And even if all that were not true, today’s disaggregated jihadist groups would not and could not keep any bargain which a few members of one crusader order might make in any case. "Peace talks" and hopes of a negotiated solution in Afghanistan are delusional, and American policy-makers should be devoting their time and efforts to managing the coming civil war in Afghanistan rather than weaving any more new clothes for the emperor. In the next phase ofthe war, which will certainly begin when NATO has removed most of its combat power from the country, the United States will face stark political and military choices in determining the modality and extent of its support to the non-Pashtun ethnic groups who will oppose the Taliban’s restoration.

Thomas H.Johnson is a Research Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies. M. Chris Mason is a retired Foreign Service Officer with long experience in South Asia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, DC.

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