When peace talks are really a war strategy

October 30, 2008

David Whitehouse examines the balance of forces in Afghanistan as rumors of a negotiated settlement swirl.

RUMORS OF possible peace talks in Afghanistan began in late September after a delegation from the government of President Hamid Karzai sat down to dinner in Saudi Arabia with former officials of the Taliban.

Then, on October 8, Gen. David Petraeus, the incoming commander of the U.S. Central Command, endorsed the idea of opening talks with insurgents. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the new U.S. assessment of its war strategy, due out in November, will also recommend engaging the Taliban.

These reports have raised hopes that the U.S. might strike a deal with Afghan insurgents to end the war. But these hopes seem to be based on wishes, not facts.

Two years of military advances by the Afghan rebels have raised doubts among major European powers that the U.S.-NATO war can be won by force. British and French generals and diplomats expressed skepticism in early October that additional troops would stem the insurgency. They suggested that the way to salvage a Western-backed regime in Afghanistan would be to negotiate a share of government power for insurgent forces that accept the regime's legitimacy.

From left: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, German Gen. Egon Ramms, and U.S. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan
From left: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, German Gen. Egon Ramms, and U.S. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan (Sgt. Andrew E. Lynch)

Hopes for a negotiated settlement have also been bolstered by the idea that a new American president would set a different course in Afghanistan. But every sign indicates that the next president will follow the plans already set in motion by the current one--to drastically escalate the fight to preserve the puppet Karzai regime.

Karzai himself has reasons to raise hope for negotiations that have nothing to do with the real prospects for peace.

Last fall, a Canadian polling firm found that nearly three-quarters of Afghans approve of negotiations with the Taliban. Even though Karzai's popularity remains much higher than the Taliban's, more than half of poll respondents approved a Taliban role in a future government if it meant an end to the fighting.

For this reason, Karzai may hope that the mere mention that he is offering talks with the Taliban--a stance that he has taken as far back as January 2007--will boost his popularity, which has dropped since the poll was taken.

IN FACT, Karzai's offer to talk to the insurgents about peace is really best viewed as a war strategy.

Karzai knows that his tenuous grip on power depends on the presence of Western troops--and that the biggest force among the fighters opposed to his government, the Taliban, refuse to stop fighting as long as Western forces remain in Afghanistan.

Taliban chief Muhammad Omar and his spokespeople have reiterated this position ever since Karzai first offered peace talks. The wish to "expel the infidels" reaches to the Taliban's lowest ranks, and comes from direct experience of the occupation.

Interviews by Canada's Globe and Mail with Taliban fighters, for example, indicate that a disproportionate number of new recruits have been personally harmed by the occupation--either by military strikes that have killed family members, or by losing their livelihoods because of opium eradication.

Thus, Omar is not the negotiating partner that Karzai seeks. The aim of talks would be to split the insurgency, by accommodating those forces that would accept Karzai's government in exchange for a share of power themselves.

Several other significant insurgent forces exist in Afghanistan, and the Taliban itself is not as centralized as it used to be--it has managed its growth in recent years by "franchising" its name to other forces that want to fight the occupation. The political diversity of the insurgency has given Karzai hope that some parts of it may be co-opted.

The process of "making peace" would no doubt be lubricated by offers of patronage, both in the traditional form of cash payments to former insurgent leaders, or, as the occupiers like to advertise, in the form of "development assistance" to collaborators with the Western war effort.

The possibility of buying some new U.S. clients outside the embattled environs of Karzai's Kabul is the reason that U.S. presidential frontrunner Barack Obama has also endorsed the idea of talks. In mid-October, he compared Afghan negotiations to the strategy of divide-and-conquer that the U.S. has pursued in Iraq. Obama told Time magazine:

The...Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists, from a more radical messianic brand of insurgency. Well, whether there are those opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored.

Right now, the prospective intermediaries between Karzai and the insurgents are former Taliban officials who now support the government, as well as the Saudi regime, which has had close connections to the Taliban since its emergence in the mid-1990s. According to the Chicago Tribune, Karzai sent a delegation in September to seek Saudi assistance, which led to the meeting with the former Taliban, who were in Mecca for Ramadan.

The government's delegation was led by former Afghan Chief Justice Fazil Hadi Shinwari, a Karzai appointee, whose main qualification for reaching out to the Saudis and Taliban seems to be that he shares their backward social views. In his years as chief justice, Shinwari instated Taliban-like repression through religious police and, according to authors Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, filled Kabul's prisons with women, jailed for such offenses as resisting forced marriage.

Also rumored to be at the Mecca gathering was Pakistan's former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose connections to the Taliban also date back to the 1990s.

ANOTHER OBJECTIVE of peace talks, especially among American advocates of negotiations, is to drive a wedge between the bulk of the insurgency and al-Qaeda.

This idea, often described as a search for a "moderate" Taliban, goes back to the Clinton administration, which sought the extradition of Osama bin Laden following the August 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. According to Steve Coll, author of two books on bin Laden, Clinton hesitated to make a clean break with the Taliban because of their close connection to Pakistan, a key U.S. ally.

Even if the "moderate" Taliban did not exist, they kept springing up in the minds of U.S. policymakers because such a political force would allow the U.S. to crush its al-Qaeda adversary, while supporting its Pakistani ally.

There may have been one real opportunity to break the Taliban from al-Qaeda--after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But the Bush administration passed up the chance.

According to the congressional "9/11 Commission Report" and other sources, mullah Omar was open to the idea of handing bin Laden over for prosecution in return for the U.S. breaking off plans to invade Afghanistan. But Bush brushed aside the opportunity. The chance to establish a strategic occupation on the edge of oil- and gas-rich Caspian region proved to be higher on the imperial wish list than the desire to capture those responsible for the September 11 attacks.

Right now, the chance of breaking the Taliban from al-Qaeda seems more remote than ever. For the Taliban, the connection to al-Qaeda brings international fighters and money to the war effort. Al-Qaeda has also helped the Taliban--a largely unschooled force--to upgrade its technical and tactical abilities. For example, journalist Ahmed Rashid revealed in his recent book, Descent into Chaos, that al-Qaeda was instrumental in setting up a cottage industry in Pakistani border areas to produce roadside bombs for Taliban use in Afghanistan.

The Taliban is fully aware that the offer of peace talks comes because of its growing strength against the occupation.

Hamid Gul, former chief of Pakistan's intelligence agency with close ties to the Taliban, is quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, "The Taliban will never formally negotiate with Karzai. They won't budge an inch, especially at a time when America is seen as losing the war." It's even less likely that the Taliban would break now with al-Qaeda--just at the time when al-Qaeda is helping them win.

What's more, the Taliban are unlikely to stop short of full victory and accept a share of power in a government that is now dominated by warlords of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban have been at war with these warlords since 1994 and refused to share power with them the first time the Taliban was knocking on the gates of Kabul in 1996.

As Coll put it in Ghost Wars, the Taliban wanted to hang the warlords, not form a government with them. Nothing about the current balance of forces is pushing the Taliban leadership to change this stance.

THE TALIBAN won't accept a peace deal while the U.S. remains, and the U.S. doesn't ever plan to leave. In 2005, after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld campaigned publicly for permanent military bases in Afghanistan, the U.S. got Karzai to sign a "declaration of strategic partnership" that gave the U.S. the right to maintain its military presence indefinitely.

Far from seeking peace, the U.S. plan now is to intensify the war. Already this year, 3,500 Marines have arrived to raise U.S. troop levels to about 33,000. The Pentagon has requested an additional Marine battalion before the year is out and an extra Army brigade for next spring. In the longer term, the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan is calling for a total increase of 20,000 troops. Both major presidential candidates have pledged to continue the buildup.

This puts the U.S. on a collision course with the strengthened Taliban. According to the Chicago Tribune, by September of this year, it was "almost impossible to drive an hour south, east or west of Kabul without hitting a Taliban-allied check post." But more than four-fifths of the supplies for Western troops comes from Pakistan by way of the southern and eastern roads, say specialists Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin.

"So bad is the situation," wrote Christina Lamb in the London Times, "that British and American forces are indirectly funding the Taliban as they get their own fuel and water supplies through. The private contractors they use estimate that 25 percent of the $4,000 per truck paid for security ends up with the Taliban."

By next spring, when U.S. troop strength is raised by more than 10,000 above the previous year's level, we can expect a fierce fight to blow the insurgents off the roads.

The U.S. will not negotiate its own withdrawal until the political costs of the war--exacted by the insurgency and also by an American antiwar movement--are raised substantially.

The central objective of the U.S. war on Afghanistan was the occupation itself, not the pursuit of bin Laden. Like the Clinton administration before it, and an Obama administration after it, the Bush team sought a strategic placement in an energy-rich region where the U.S. is squaring off against such rivals as Russia, Iran and China.

The next president will continue to see this as an objective worth killing for.

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