If you think you understand Afghanistan, try to make a coherent narrative out of the following three news stories reported this week:
1. The New York Times reports that the U.S. flew Taliban elites to Kabul in order to meet with the Karzai administration, but this same article states that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is being cut out of negotiations because of his ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Furthermore the article suggests that ISI has penchant for eliminating Taliban members who seek conciliation with Kabul.
2. The Asia Times reports that Pakistan has released Taliban Second in Command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar was captured by Pakistani forces in January. Initially the capture was hailed as a great victory for coalition forces, until the New York Times pointed out that Baradar was lead negotiator in secret peace talks with Karzai. By capturing the Taliban’s number two, Pakistan effectively stalled the peace talks. Now, Baradar is free again.
3. The New York Times reports that that the NATO campaign in Kandahar is successfully ousting forces from the region. The same article notes that insurgents have retreated into—you guessed it!—Pakistan’s tribal regions. Meanwhile in the think tank world, Oxfam’s Head of Policy in Afghanistan, Matt Waldman, has recently produced a paper on the prospects of negotiation. In a conference at the United States Institute for Peace on Thursday, Mr. Waldman stated that one of the Sine Qua Non’s of a successful counterinsurgency is there be no sanctuary to which the insurgency can escape.
The administration seems to be moving into a new phase in the war against Afghanistan, but troubling signs persist. If the goal is to marginalize and defeat the Taliban, it is entirely appropriate to try dividing the insurgency. There may well be members of broader Taliban alliance that the U.S. should not negotiate with due to their Islamic extremism. But to refuse to meet the most critical player in the Quetta Shura because of ISI connections seems outrageous. Does the Pentagon really believe that ignoring the ISI will solve the problem? What game is Pakistan playing anyway? Is the release of Baradar a signal that Pakistan wants to be engaged in peace talks? Are they just trying to snub NATO? My own hunch is that there are two sets of negotiations occurring in Afghanistan. One set of talks, supported by the U.S., is limited to some keys members of Taliban who the NATO coalition believes will break from the insurgency. The goal here is less reconciliation and more reintegration. The second set of negotiations long pursued by Karzai aims at a broad based agreement with Taliban and possibly a political settlement ending the conflict.
Although both strategies emphasize dialogue and diplomacy, they diverge in some critical areas. Firstly the U.S. strategy wants to sideline Pakistan, which it views as the main destabilizing force in Afghanistan. The Karzai strategy looks at Pakistan more pragmatically. They may be part of the problem now, but they will almost certainly have to be part of the solution as well. The U.S. strategy believes a military solution is still possible. True, no pentagon official is going to say they can completely eliminate the insurgency, but they do believe that the insurgency can be marginalized so that it no longer poses a serious security threat to the country. The Karzai strategy sees recent military gains as temporary, especially as long as the Taliban has a sanctuary in Pakistan. While the U.S. strategy believes it can weaken the Taliban before entering negotiations, the Karzai strategy questions this logic. “Can coalition forces gain the upper hand militarily in the next eight months,” they ask? If the Taliban is in a weak position, might the insurgents have more incentive to keep fighting in the hopes of reversing their fortunes?—a point which Georgetown Professor Paul Pillar harps on. The U.S. already has a July deadline to begin withdrawing troops. The insurgency knows it can outlast U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Isn’t the best solution to achieve as comprehensive a political settlement as is possible?
Recent news articles seem to raise more questions than they answer. The fact that dialogue is now being used as an instrument in U.S foreign policy is definitely a good sign. My worry is that we are negotiating based on a number of bad assumptions: that the Taliban is in a continually weakening position and that bogyman Pakistan can be sidelined. If these assumptions turn out to be false, negotiations may well fail.