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The South Asia Channel
Reconciliation Foolosophy II
The worrisome push for political accommodation with the Taliban continues.
More than two years ago, I co-authored “Reconciliation Foolosophy: Fishing Without Bait” for Foreign Policy. At the time, I thought that pressing the issue of reconciliation without concrete evidence that the Taliban leadership is either worn down or desperate to reach a peace agreement was at best foolhardy. The latest fascination with premature and imprudent peace talks, between belligerents who are not truly ready to talk seriously and brought together by neighbors with fallacious pretenses, is even more worrisome.
In “Afghanistan, Choose Your Enemies Wisely,” Jeff Eggers, the former special assistant to the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan, argues that “the Taliban’s new leadership may be the last decent opportunity for a political solution to the conflict. Without one, the Islamic State will make Afghanistan the next Iraq or Syria.” This Foreign Policy article offers a unique perspective into the Barack Obama administration’s view of the Taliban and, as such, deserves some additional attention.
The article’s main arguments are that political accommodation with the Taliban is the best way forward in Afghanistan and that, in comparison to the Islamic State, the Taliban are the lesser of two evils. Although the article represents only the author’s opinions and not the official policy of the U.S. government, in reality, it does not take much to recognize that this article is an accurate description of the existing White House policy towards reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
For some time now, the Obama administration has tried to draw distinctions between the Taliban and the Islamic State in order to keep the preferred option of political accommodation (with the Taliban) close to the forefront. After all, accommodation with insurgents is not as caustic as negotiating with terrorists.
Earlier this year, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz made the case that the Taliban are “armed insurgents,” not “terrorists.” In the same press conference, Schultz also attempted to differentiate between Jordan’s willingness to consider the exchange of convicted terrorists for one of its pilots held captive by the Islamic State and the exchange of five Taliban held in Guantánamo Bay for a U.S. soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, last year. Schultz’s point was that, unlike the Islamic State that is a State Department designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), the United States considers the Taliban merely armed insurgents. Oddly enough, Bergdahl spent most of his captivity in the hands of the Haqqani Network — a group on the State Department’s list of FTOs.
In fact, the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda, the quintessential terrorist organization, had pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and have now rushed to support his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The notion that groups who have pledged fealty to the Taliban can be FTOs whilst the Afghan Taliban are not is simply illogical if the U.S. government was interested in forcing the Taliban to abandon terrorist tactics. Considering the president’s desire to achieve a near total withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end his second term, the Obama administration is pushing for a political accommodation with the Taliban regardless of their tactical behavior.
Setting the bar for a responsible end to the chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan even lower, comments expressed in Eggers’ Foreign Policy article more than hint of the administration’s belief that “the Taliban’s new leadership, however it emerges from this succession, may be the last decent opportunity for a political solution to the Afghan conflict.” Restating established White House policy of distinguishing between the Islamic State and the Taliban, Eggers suggests: “In Afghanistan, however, the insurgents and terrorists can still be addressed separately…Reconciliation, or bringing the Taliban into the political fold in Afghanistan, is the best way to prevent an Iraq- or Syria-like deterioration of the Afghan state.”
Most Afghans would argue, however, that the distinction between insurgents and terrorists gets blurred when the Taliban conduct targeted assassinations, destroy schools and health clinics, and carry out mass executions and beheadings in order to intimidate and coerce the Afghan population. The Obama administration’s obtuse distinction between terrorists and insurgents at a time when Kabul is experiencing its bloodiest month on record is not just folly; it is absurd.
Certainly, the latest United Nations report makes it clear that civilian casualties continue to increase, with an overwhelming percentage of fatalities caused by insurgents. And whilst the withdrawal of coalition forces from combat operations at the end of 2014 has lowered the number of foreign soldier casualties dramatically, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) deaths have gone up by nearly 70 percent thus far this year, in comparison with the same period in 2014.
The biggest problem with the Obama administration’s approach to the Taliban is that it has convinced itself of the logic of its argument. As such, Obama’s national security team continues to ignore all indicators to the contrary. Knowing the kind of allies that the Taliban keep — starting with the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda — it is hard to understand how Washington continues to cling to the notion that the Taliban insurgents are somehow the lesser evil when compared to Islamic State “terrorists.” Also, the administration remains convinced that there is “good reason to believe that the Taliban would be ready to break with al Qaeda in the course of a political settlement.” But this idea brushes over the fact that, as recently as last month, al Qaeda has endorsed the new Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour and, in return, the new Taliban emir has welcomed Ayman al-Zawahiri’s pledge of allegiance.
Of course, Washington is not alone in its attempts to downplay the Taliban threat and accentuate the possibility of political settlement. In February 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told reporters: “In the past 36 years the grounds for peace have never been better than they are today…we are on the right track.” Six months later, in a meeting with the outgoing Swedish ambassador, Ghani said: “The enemy has faced defeat on the frontline and in order to conceal their failure, they carry out suicide attacks in cities among civilians… We are currently in a critical condition, but on the right track.”
Perhaps the White House can conveniently ignore the well-documented fact that the Taliban have inflicted more civilian and ANSF casualties in 2014 than any previous year of recorded statistics, and that they are on track to surpass this dubious record in 2015. But Ghani cannot afford to disregard the troubling reality that whilst Pakistan promised to deliver the Taliban and dampen violence levels in Afghanistan, Islamabad cannot provide results. After Kabul’s bloodiest month on record, Ghani has reversed his earlier calls for rapprochement with Pakistan. It appears as if Ghani is finally coming to grips with the reality that Pakistan’s national interests are not always congruent with Afghanistan’s and that the Taliban are nowhere close to accepting a political accommodation.
Finally, the misery that the Islamic State has brought to Iraq and Syria, its ability to recruit disenfranchised youths from across the Muslim world, and its appeal to “lone wolf” terrorists certainly qualify the group as a transnational threat. Arguably, the Islamic State has become a transnational bogeyman group far worse than al Qaeda ever was, and far more evil.
Judging the various degrees of evil in Afghanistan — a country that has been at war for four decades — is at best an exercise in frustration. Afghans could point to numerous manifestations of wickedness, depending on their circumstances quite readily. Even today, for some Afghans who have fallen victim of the government’s corruption, predatory behavior, and inability to protect its population may reflect a version of malevolence. To some Afghans I talk with, the premature U.S. troop withdrawal, the rush to use this last “decent opportunity” to cut a deal, is a sin after so much sacrifice in blood and treasure. In this context, the White House assertion that the Taliban are the lesser of the two evils when compared to the Islamic State is a bit of a stretch.
While the parallels between the Islamic State’s rapid territorial gains in Iraq and the potential for expansion into Afghanistan may seem obvious, they are problematic. There are no uniform patterns in the Islamic State’s success in gaining ground in different countries. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Islamic State in Afghanistan will follow the same course as it did in Iraq. With that said, the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan is not inconsequential. As regional analyst Anand Gopal notes: “Government officials inflate the [Islamic State] threat as a way of trying to capture the West’s flagging attention … however, it does appear that a few disgruntled Afghan Taliban members are rebranding themselves as [Islamic State].”
In light of the drama unfolding inside the Taliban over the circumstances of Mullah Omar’s death and the battle for succession, it is possible that some Taliban commanders will shift their allegiance to the Islamic State instead of supporting Mullah Mansour’s claim to the top position. But that hardly makes the Islamic State the greater of the two evils. Certainly, if carnage caused by Taliban or Islamic State attacks in Afghanistan is a measure of evil, the Taliban score higher on the scale of wickedness.
Ultimately, all armed conflict resolution scenarios end with some sort of political solution — but only once both sides of the fighting agree that violence is no longer the answer. Obama may want Afghanistan to keep looking for peace in all the wrong places, but the hard truth is that the Taliban are not interested in what the Afghan government is offering and the Islamic State has not developed into the major threat to Afghanistan that some have predicted. Furthermore, considering the recent anti-Pakistan rhetoric in Afghanistan, Pakistan is losing its incentive to cooperate with Kabul — that is, of course, if Islamabad ever had the ability and intention to deliver on its promises to Ghani in the first place.
Events over the past year have pointed to the reality that Obama’s approach to reconciliation is off-kilter and that a quick peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government is a mirage. Only by realizing how far the reconciliation process is from the end goal can the United States avoid doomed-to-fail quick fixes that reinforce Afghans’ sense of hopelessness.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images