Don’t Cry for the Taliban
Mullah Mansour's death may be a win for the endless U.S. war on the Taliban. But for the insurgency, it means more chaos -- which is exactly what they want.
As the news of Afghan Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour’s demise via U.S. drone strike in Pakistan trickled in over the weekend, Afghan hands from Kabul to California took to Twitter to mull its implications. While many Afghans in Kabul appeared to welcome the news, international experts, aid workers, and foreign correspondents weren’t so sure. “Say goodbye to Afghan peace talks. There’s no way the Taliban are going to sit at the negotiating table after their leader was targeted,” posted one international news reporter. In response, an Afghan government spokesman quipped: “They weren’t coming to peace anyway. They picked [a] fight over peace and they deserve to pay for it. Let them count for it!” But the doves, it seems, were winning the day. A 2015 study by Max Abrahms and Jochen Mierau on the relationship between strikes targeting leaders and spasms of violence by lower-level militant members began making the rounds — again. “Sad to see war winning over peace … after 35-plus years of war,” noted a foreign correspondent, while an expert wondered if the Taliban would be “very angry and less prone to talks.”
While the international community has been talking about talking to the Taliban, Operation Omari, the group’s latest spring offensive — named after the movement’s deceased founder, Mohammed Omar — blasted off with an attack last month in downtown Kabul right next to the Afghan Ministry of Defense, killing 64 and wounding over 300 in one of the deadliest recent attacks in the Afghan capital. That bombing seemed to presage a most violent “spring offensive” (a term that sounds as archaic as the text in colonial-era military dispatches. In truth, the winter has ceased to matter, as attacks continue through the bitter Afghan chill). Don’t forget, the Taliban — or some part of it, at least officially — has repeatedly said it will not participate in talks until the “foreign troops” are gone. Whereupon, it will intensify its offensive to take large parts of Afghanistan, and the anti-Taliban resistence will fight back, resulting in a civil war that will plunge the country right back to the chaos of the 1990s. The group isn’t interested in talks. Like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Taliban has calculated that it will win the civil war it is eagerly anticipating.
So, if the Taliban is poised to plunge Afghanistan back into war, should the United States just give up and leave Afghanistan to suffer a 1990s redux? Whoa, not so fast. 2016 is not 1996. The rise of the Islamic State adds a new dimension to the game. The Iran-Saudi hate fest has intensified. And Afghanistan’s intelligence agency is now capable of playing its own dirty spy games, while its formidable Pakistani counterparts do everything they can to curb that power. We’re in a new era, in other words.
For the United States and the ever-spineless European Union, the prospect of another lawless hot spot is a headache. Afghanistan is exactly the sort of place where spectacular terror plots can take root. Think of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, fiddling with liquid gels and printer cartridges in Yemen, of Richard Reid obtaining a shoe bomb fashioned in the old southern Afghan explosives labs, of 9/11.
But that was in the bad old days when Osama bin Laden and his friends ran terror training camps in Afghanistan. In recent years, the Taliban has painted itself as a nationalist movement. No more safe havens for al Qaeda training camps, the Taliban has suggested. Instead, Afghan women can look forward to an education, access to jobs, and all the freedoms the Taliban denied them when the movement was in power, according to conflict resolution experts and NGOs. I want some of what they’re smoking. The Taliban’s senior leaders, including the dreaded Haqqani network’s Sirajuddin Haqqani — tucked safely in Islamabad’s pocket — was one of Mansour’s deputies and could replace him. Whether or not it’s Haqqani, he has the means and the clout to stay atop the movement’s ranks — if not, he would be a formidable threat to what’s left of Taliban high command.
If Haqqani is the sort of winner-take-all guy on whom you cannot rely, check out the latest addition to the so-called peace table: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, notorious leader of the Hezb-i-Islami militant group and among the leading candidates for world’s worst war criminal. Ol’ Gulbuddin, it appears, is ready to make peace, as he has claimed to be many times in his deadly, decades-long career. Problem is, he repeatedly reneges on his peace promises since he apparently suffers either from amnesia, delusions of grandeur, or both. Or perhaps he genuinely does not understand this strange thing called peace. Or maybe he was just waiting for the right moment to secure a favorable deal. Barely a week ago, a leaked draft agreement between Hekmatyar and the Afghan government’s peace body, the High Peace Council, revealed that he was ready to cease all military anti-government activity in exchange for immunity for past crimes.
Now, to be fair, the Afghan government has included in its ranks all manner of unsavory warlords touting horrendous human rights records since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But Hekmatyar, with his targeting of Kabul neighborhoods during the 1990s mujahideen wars, the mass graves full of his victims, his acid attacks on women, is special even by Afghan standards. If warlords such as Hekmatyar have to be brought to the table with immunity deals to bring peace to Afghanistan, it exposes the hideous copouts and failures of this entire 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar Afghan reconstruction mission.
The nature of the U.S. game, time and again, is to get in on the side of the reactionaries, elevate ethnicity, tribe, or religion and set aside secular values, only to lose heart somewhere in the middle, then look for an exit strategy. The latter is almost inevitably a recipe for a military re-engagement in global jihadist breeding grounds. U.S. President Barack Obama oversaw a woefully halfhearted, surge-on-a-deadline in Afghanistan. One of his retired generals, David Petraeus, has publicly called for more U.S. air power in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed co-written with the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon.
It’s this sort of raw message that will elicit sighs among some wonks, NGO do-gooders, and journalists — denizens of the expert class who built their careers over the past 15 years by peddling their expertise on Afghanistan after the country jolted from 1990s neglect to international money magnet on the backs of a military invasion.
The new money sponge on the table right now is the “talking to the Taliban” industry. That High Peace Council is soaking up hundreds of millions of dollars of donor money: The bill for just resettling Hekmatyar in Kabul and providing him guards and vehicles will total around $4 million a year, according to the New York Times. With money like that, starting a career in the warlord business is a win-win for any young Afghan. If you can grow up to be a Hekmatyar, the internationals will pay you to fight and finance your retirement plan.
In the meantime, no one is talking about the pension plan of Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. When it comes to that squad of jihadists, the United States and it allies plan to bomb them out of their so-called caliphate. The discourse these days is that the Islamic State isn’t invincible – and that’s true. But in Afghanistan, from the very start, we suffered from “good Taliban-bad Taliban” schizophrenia. That’s because Washington could not, and still cannot, reverse gears with the group’s patron: Pakistan. That would take real leadership from U.S. politicians and imagination from their advisors who can’t get over their fear that Pakistan will start plopping nuclear bombs around the region
Following the airstrikes that killed Mansour, Pakistan has, as usual, protested the U.S. breach of its sovereignty. I’m not wasting another second of my time puzzling over whether Islamabad secretly wanted Mansour dead, but also must maintain its public anti-U.S. rhetoric. What does it matter? Nothing’s going to change. U.S.-Pakistani relations will chill again. But then they will thaw. The Pakistani military will seek more U.S. weapons. Washington will hesitate, but then cave in. It’s always the same game.
In its official response to the news of Mansour’s death, Pakistan magnanimously stated, “A politically negotiated settlement is the only viable option for lasting peace in Afghanistan.” This, I love. No prizes for guessing who’s paying for all this. Islamabad has been pushing a “quadrilateral” peace process involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and China. QCG — or Quadrilateral Coordination Group — is the new acronym du jour in Af-Pak wonk circles. Expect to see it everywhere soon!
When a very green Ashraf Ghani became president of Afghanistan two years ago — fresh from the annals of U.S. universities, the World Bank, and the Kabul international NGO set – he announced a new opening up to Pakistan policy. It was so sweet. The folks who knew better held their breaths, awaiting the inevitable loss of innocence. It came earlier than expected, when Kabul received confirmation last year of Omar’s 2013 death.
In the days and weeks to come, we will be officially presented with a new Taliban mullah-in-chief. We will then have to explore his loyalty base and determine whether commander X from region Y is with or against the new leader. Next, we will hope the new Taliban leader joins our “give peace a chance” chorus.
Afghans can be surprisingly forgiving about old warlords switching sides, making peace, breaking promises, and doing the whole dance all over again. It comes after nearly four decades of war and a deep resignation that the wrong side will always win. The sad part is the U.S.-led international mission in Afghanistan spent 15 years and billions of dollars, risked and lost lives, but lacked the imagination and will to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. The United States and its allied forces went in with a patronizing “this is Afghanistan, this is how it works” mindset.
If the scope and ambition of our international reconstruction missions are this small, the best we can do is target a senior Taliban chief here, a commander there, ensuring they will always be on the defensive and can never establish that emirate they all seek. Well, so long Mansour. Hello, new man-in-waiting. Watch yourself, though — there are drones overhead.
Photo credit: ZIAR KHAN YAAD/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images