Saturday, May 03, 2008

Negotiating with the Taliban - May 3

Negotiate with the Taliban? Only if Jack Layton is leading the charge. That way if anything happens to him it won't be considered a huge loss. Just kidding Jack! I once met Mr. Layton and shook his hand. He sure knows how to charm the Danforth locals. On a more serious side this really reflects unfavorably upon NATO. I sure hope PM Stephen Harper is playing close attention to this.

Johnny Cash

Geopolitical Diary: Negotiating With the Taliban in Afghanistan
May 2, 2008 0201 GMT

Canadian troops in Afghanistan are looking for opportunities to carry out tactical-level talks with Taliban insurgents, Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail reported on Thursday. The paper added that discussions are under way in Afghan government circles regarding strategic negotiations with the Taliban, including some controversial suggestions that Taliban leaders could receive political appointments or provincial governing posts. Furthermore, international stakeholders in the Policy Action Group reportedly are discussing “red lines” to set boundaries for what the talks could include.

The West has come to the realization that “solving” Afghanistan is not something that can be done militarily. The country, with its size and geographic complexity, is — at best — an artificial state held together by nothing more than an occupying force and neighbors who think that imposing direct control is more trouble than it is worth. Put another way, if the Soviets — with as many troops in Afghanistan as the United States now has in Iraq and with the will to kill anyone, anywhere — could not handle the country, NATO will certainly not be able to handle it with Western rules of engagement.

Yet that is how the war has been fought since 2002. Note we say 2002, not 2001. In 2001, the war was a different creature: The operation entailed overthrowing the then-Taliban government, and not imposing some flavor of stability. Overthrowing a manpower-light, geographically dispersed military proved rather simple. But then again, most of the Taliban chose not to stand still and let themselves be bombed from 20,000 feet; they melted away into the countryside. They began their resurgence in 2002 — which, six years later, has taken the form of a full-fledged insurgency.

The state of war that has existed since the Taliban began their comeback is what has defined the “country” for the past six years. And that war is what the U.S. administration is now attempting to redefine. The first step in that process is the installment of Gen. David Petraeus as chief of U.S. Central Command.

Petraeus’ most impressive claim to fame so far was turning the Iraqi war of occupation around. Instead of using military force to make Iraq look like a sandy Wisconsin, he instead engaged select foes and turned them into allies, adding American firepower to their own. This not only whittled down the number of militants fighting U.S. forces, but it allowed those forces to concentrate their efforts on the foes that they had to fight, instead of needing to patrol regions that — with the right deals cut — could patrol themselves.

The war in Iraq is hardly “over,” but Petraeus’ strategy has proven sufficient to make the task manageable. Perhaps there are lessons from Iraq that can be put to work in Afghanistan such that the United States and its NATO allies can reach a point where the chaos there can be managed as well. If re-Baathification worked and the Americans are working with Islamist actors in Iraq (both Sunni and Shiite), perhaps they can do the same in Afghanistan. In other words, if there is a need to bring back the Taliban, then that has to be managed.

Petraeus has juggled a complex situation in Iraq, consisting of multiple groups divided along ethno-sectarian, ideological, political and tribal lines. Dealing with a much less complex militancy landscape involving (more or less) a singular trend — that of the Taliban — is therefore not an unreasonable expectation. That said, there is one major difference: Unlike the Iraqi actors Washington has dealt with, the Taliban could be the first jihadist group with which the United States engages in talks.

The operating assumption in any negotiations is that an armed nonstate actor is willing to be pragmatic — something very difficult for religious ideologues. What this means is that initial talks will be about gaining a clear understanding of the nebulous nature of the Taliban phenomenon such that pragmatic elements can be identified among what appears to be a collection of armed Pashtun mullahs. Separating those who are willing to do business from those who are engaged in a zero-sum game could help transform the belligerents into a much more manageable entity.

The West’s goal in Iraq is to re-create a buffer state that can contain an Iran with regional ambitions, whereas the objective in Afghanistan is far more modest. In Afghanistan, the West is not even looking to create a state in the normal sense of the word. An arrangement that can keep chaos within tolerable parameters would suffice.

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