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November 23, 2010

The Taliban "Impostor" and Political Reconciliation in Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's revelation in the New York Times that one of the Taliban officials with whom the Afghan government was meeting in peace talks with was actually an impostor is the proverbial hanging curve ball of Afghan-related snark.

Sure I could write a post about how this goes to show that the US and NATO - even after 9 years of war - has little understanding of the enemy with whom it's fighting. Even more directly, I could write a post about how this goes to show that the Petraeus/ISAF supposition that kinetic action was bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table was bunk.

As Josh Foust sums up the situation well, "the leadership of ISAF doesn't seem to have any idea what it's doing, who it's talking to, and (probably) who it is really killing."

This story is yet one more reason to conclude that the time has come for the United States to trim its sails in Afghanistan, more toward military de-escalation and lay the groundwork for a long-term political settlement. Indeed, this excellent new report from the folks at CAP makes precisely this point - it's the best report I've seen to date about an alternative course for the war in Afghanistan. 

The problem, however, it that this conclusion may seem a bit counter-intuitive. After all, isn't the obvious response to the "impostor" story that it just shows the folly of trying to negotiate with the Taliban - or even identify moderate elements within the movement? 

Actually yes! But that doesn't mean political reconciliation is the wrong course. It means the way we are going about it is all wrong.

Instead of relying on ISAF to move political negotiations forward or reach out to Taliban moderates (as it is they seem far more geared toward sowing discontent rather than laying the groundwork for reconciliation) this incident speaks to the need for an outside and independent mediator to facilitate talks, a political framework that acknowledges the legitimate aspirations of the Taliban insurgency and above all the centrality of a political, not military solution, for ending the war in Afghanistan.

It seems that the entire ISAF political strategy (and it's hard to even use those words) is predicated on not finding a workable political solution, but dividing and conquering the enemy or pounding them into submission. In short, negotiations are just another way to "win" in Afghanistan. The conflict is still seen by top policymakers as a black and white struggle between good guys and bad guys.

What is lacking is a recognition that the Taliban (who are certainly bad guys) will likely have a long-term role to play in Afghanistan's future - and that this is something that all sides in the conflict, particularly the US, are going to have to accept.  Now in an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn't play much of any role in Afghanistan's future - but we don't live in an ideal world and we are far past the point where it's even possible for the US to dictate the terms of Afghanistan's future. We have neither the time nor the resources nor the inclination nor the knowledge to do such a thing.

So instead of trying to use only sticks to bring the Taliban to the table the US and NATO may have to utilize a few carrots; namely confidence-building measures like releasing Taliban prisoners, seeking out local cease fires and ending JSOC assassinations of Taliban commanders. These moves will have to be reciprocated in some measure by the Taliban; but these measures can hopefully begin to seed the groundwork for actual political negotiations and the process of reconciliation.

Again, I don't consider this an ideal solution, but it seems more clear than ever that the US and NATO is flailing around for a solution to this war without any clear sense of what they want to achieve and even if they did, how they might get here. Ad hoc and under the radar screen political negotiations are not the way to go here; formalized talks with a non-American mediator very well might be.

Afghanistan demands a political solution - and American interests are not served by continued conflict. This latest incident will likely lead some to the conclusion that there is no hope for reconciliation. But that view is dangerous and wrong. There is only one path to the exit ramp for the United States; and it won't be found down the barrel of a gun.

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Comments

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Now in an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn't play much of any role in Afghanistan's future - but we don't live in an ideal world and we are far past the point where it's even possible for the US to dictate the terms of Afghanistan's future.

Good point here about the U.S. needing to give in order to receive something from the Taliban. And we have plenty of bargaining chips - Predator flights and missile strikes being two huge ones - that we can lay on the table. I imagine it would be really hard for a Paki warlord, for example, to refuse to make a deal that would end drone flights and missile strikes in his territory.

But what, exactly, does the U.S. want in return? Are we trying to get these people to stop being Taliban? Are we going to believe them if they promise not to allow terrorists into a future Afghanistan that we grant them control over? It's hard for me to understand what these people could reliably offer the United States that doesn't end up with them in control of Afghanistan, quietly and tacitly rebuilding terrorist safe havens.

If we want to make war in Afghanistan, LET'S MAKE WAR! Let's finally call this 10-year debacle what it is - an invasion - and do what invaders do - subjugate and govern. Why rely on laughable Afghan security forces to be our proxy when the U.S. government could perform their duties for them at much less cost and with much greater effect? Why keep trying to substitute a shitty Afghan government for that of the United States - we could have powered Afghan cities 10 times over already (bullshit statistic) with the number of generators and amount of gasoline we've been trucking in for our military bases.

This half-assed "we're invading you but we're your friends here to make life better for you" shit is a joke and you can't expect illiterate tribesmen raised on AK-47s and mistrust of authority to understand it or support it. All they know is, we're not Afghans and we're in their country. We need to show them that Afghanistan is OUR country now or we need to give it back and stop wasting time and money there.

Remember, "you break it, you buy it?" We broke it. It's fucking ours. Let's stop pretending it still belongs to people who can't govern it and either officially take the country or officially give it back and start working up a counter-terrorism plan for the terrorist bases that WILL INEVITABLY REAPPEAR there.

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We need to show them that Afghanistan is our country now or we need to give it back and stop wasting time and money there. These all are great to know about it.

It's rather like I/P, isn't it, with the US supposedly promoting accord while it sides with one of the parties sowing discord. So, yes, an outside and independent mediator is needed in both places to facilitate talks. Korea also.

But then the US would actually have to resolve disputes diplomatically and then would be encouraged to cut 'way back on military spending, which makes it a non-starter.

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