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Talking to the Taliban

Posted by on May 13th, 2010

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By Dave Anderson:

The LA Times reports that the Obama Administration is backing plans to face reality.  The Karzai government has been talking with significant senior elements of the Quetta Shura Taliban and other allied anti-government factions for over a year now.  The US will now stick its toe into the waters.  Previously, the US had been willing to accept the need to reconcile the foot soldiers of the Taliban, whomwe called the $10 a day Taliban, with offers of amnesty, vocational training and cash, but not to look for a political solution acceptable to mid-level and senior Taliban elites. 

But Karzai also is looking for Obama to endorse a peace plan that carries a politically risky element: Reconciling with some of the Taliban's leaders. To date, the administration has been cool to the idea. With the Afghanistan war is already unpopular at home, many Americans are likely to be further dismayed at the thought of making amends with figures who killed hundreds of U.S. troops….

At an international conference on Afghanistan in London in January, U.S. officials said they favored assimilation of enemy foot soldiers who've disarmed and renounced violence. But they refused to publicly discuss the notion of reconciliation with top Taliban leaders.

Nonetheless, at the news conference, Obama showed he was open to the plan — a significant step for an administration that has been divided internally over the issue…

Obama argues that the US surge into Afghanistan is a necessary component of any negotiations as a means of halting the Taliban's military success and thus change the bargaining positions of all parties.  This statement is aimed at the domestic US audience as there is a large proportion of the population that will quickly seek a Dolschtass argument or insist on a Byzantine explanation of how Adrianople was truly a Roman victory. 

However, the US knows it is leaving at some point.  The US also knows that the surge troops are not creating the dramatic gains needed for a strong but temporary hand at the table as the Marjah offensivelooked great on TV but the government in the box got lost somewhere by FedEx.  The Khandahar offensive is being downgraded to a shaping operation because none of the local elites really want 20,000 US or ANA troops in their neighborhood to solve a problem that they don't see as a problem.  US COIN doctrine is in shambles and its advocates incoherently insisting that we have not used True COIN

The level of violence is increasing.  The pace of violence resembles post-Fallujah Iraq before the Iraqi civil war went into full swing and US forces turned a blind eye to the majoritarian ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other disputed belts by nominally friendly militias.  There are no such internal splits among Afghanistan's Pashtun populations that could produce such a useful and plausibly deniable militia movement that could go after Taliban and other Pashtun tribal fighters on their own ground.  From Juan Cole:

The military situation is getting worse. There were 400 attacks in the past week in Afghanistan, 60 percent of them by roadside bomb There were over 1,000 roadside bomb attacks in April 2010, twice as many as in April 2009.

This number of attacks per day, some 57, about 34 of them roadside bombs, is breathtaking. That level of violence is what characterized Iraq in March, 2005, before the Sunni-Shiite civil war. The year 2005 was a bloody year in Iraq, and nobody but then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld doubted we were mired in a vicious guerrilla war.

The United States will not achieve its maximalist goals.  It will not achieve the intermediate goal set announced by President Obama when he authorized a troop surge.  It is time to identify critical American interests in Afghanistan, secure those interests through talks with the relevant local power centers, and not care about secondary interests or losing the next two weeks in the news cycles to reactionary shriekers. 

There is only one red-line from the American perspective from talking with anyone in Afghanistan.  That red line is active, material support for "far enemy" terrorist groups.  Preventing long-distance support and planning cells for operations against US and allied civilians in their home territory is the only significant interest that we have in the region.  Everything else is a local concern that does not impact US security all that much. 

We can achieve minimal goals if we accept that we as a nation can not control everything nor is everything worth controlling.  Trying for anything else is a recipe for a long slow bleed and the continued militarization of society and a drain on the treasury for a national priapic dose. 

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