Andrew Bacevich on Afghanistan

Literary magazine Guernica just published an interview with military historian and author Andrew Bacevitch.   In the interview, Bacevitch discussed his views on the U.S global military posture.  Particularly striking were his thoughts on the Taliban:

Andrew Bacevich: First of all, it’s not clear that the Taliban has aspirations beyond ruling Afghanistan. We should not confuse the Taliban and al Qaeda. Their aspirations are quite different. Also, when that argument is made, it is posed, once again, as if there are only two choices: either we have to continue to fight the war until the cows come home or we’re just going to let the Taliban do whatever they want. There are other choices. For example, let’s say that our withdrawal led to the Taliban returning to power. It would be quite plausible for us to communicate to the Taliban the following message: ‘We don’t much care what you do in Afghanistan as long as you don’t allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. Should you choose to disregard this then you are going to be subjected to a very fearful punishment.’ That threat I suspect would have considerable influence on the Taliban. Why? Because they know we are capable of throwing them out of power. Since they want to stay in power, they would probably respect those kinds of red lines that we drew.

One of the central debates right now is how to define the Taliban.  One side of the debate claims they are a fanatic Islamic group that will re-invite al Qaeda back to Afghanistan, impose Islamic Sharia on the population, and return Afghan women to a state of semi-slavery.  Under this view, there can be no meaningful negotiations with the Taliban because the group will never compromise on its core beliefs.  This group also tends to view the Taliban as largely monolithic.

A second view, argued persuasively here by Bacevitch, says that the Taliban’s political aims supersede their extreme religious ideology.  Under this argument, the Taliban would be willing to compromise on issues such as al Qaeda’s return.  The Taliban are seen largely as a rational actor, capable of modifying their behavior in order to preserve power.

So which group is right?  Those in the first group can point to the post-September 11 ultimatum delivered to the Taliban and ultimately ignored by Mullah Omar.  If the Taliban are capable of compromise, why didn’t they turn over Osama Bin Laden when they had the chance?  Well, there is significant evidence that the Taliban were deeply divided on the Bin Laden question; furthermore it remains to be seen, whether, having been burned already from al Qaeda, the Taliban would be eager to invite the terrorist organization back.

Recent developments suggest that the Taliban would be willing to make some concessions on the issues relating to al Qaeda.  On the thorny issue of women’s rights, the Taliban again appear to be evolving.  According to the Washington Post, the Taliban has made women’s rights the centerpiece to their effective propaganda campaign that is spreading across Afghanistan.   If the Taliban are capable of evolving and are willing to negotiate, the threat they pose to the U.S. can be contained using traditional diplomacy.   Under this more plausible scenario, the U.S. could use very credible threat of military intervention to deter the Taliban from inviting al Qaeda back into Afghanistan.

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