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Talking About Taliban Talks – Just Psyops?

Posted by on October 22nd, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

We've heard an awful lot about talks with Taliban leaders recently. There have been reports, deliberately leaked by the Pentagon, of senior leaders being smuggled into Kabul for talks by the US military. There have been rumors that Pakistan has released Mullah Baradar. There's been a lot of smoke – but now experts and an-named officials are suggesting there's not a lot of fire.

Global Post's Jean MacKenzie writes:

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban and co-editor of a recent autobiography of a top Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, is skeptical about all the hype. He calls it a “blunt force PR campaign” released by the U.S. military and certain government officials, hoping to prop up flagging enthusiasm at home for what more and more Americans see as a losing battle.

“Certainly, what's going on is nowhere near as exciting or progress-filled as the media are making it out to be,” he said. “If you dig down deep into the sourcing on a lot of these stories, it's all still rumors and shadow-play.”

Nevertheless, the media blitz has been almost unprecedented: Everyone from The New York Times to U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus has been making mysterious references to promising signs that are evident only to those in the know.

It has all the earmarks of a carefully orchestrated play aimed at creating the illusion of success, something that longtime Afghan watchers have been quick to point out.

“The case is being intentionally overstated,” said Martine van Blijert, a senior researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based independent think tank, writing in her blog. “[Officials are] suggesting more fire than the smoke warrants, and … feeding the press information about events that are likely to have taken place in the past.”

No one denies that there are meetings between Afghan government officials and the Taliban. They have been taking place for years, with very little result.

The Taliban's senior leadership have consistently denied any involvement in serious talks in their statements too. McClatchy's Jonathan Landay adds more expert opinion:

"This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," said a U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outreach effort.

"Exaggerating the significance of it (the contacts) is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency, to make insurgents suspicious with each other and to send them on witch hunts looking for traitors who want to negotiate with the enemy," said the U.S. official. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Ali Jalali, a scholar at the National Defense University and a former Afghan interior minister who maintains close contacts with the Afghan government, said he knew of no significant peace negotiations.

"There is a desire (by the Afghan government and its foreign backers) for talks with the Taliban and others, but the situation is not ready for these talks yet," he told McClatchy. "There is a lot of smoke, but no fire."

…U.S. officials and Afghanistan experts said insurgent leaders have no incentive at the moment to engage in serious talks. They pointed out that insurgents still hold sway over large swaths of Afghanistan despite sustaining significant losses in Army Gen. David Petraeus' intensified counterinsurgency drive and stepped-up night raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

"We have the impression that all of the commanders that have been taken out have been replaced quite quickly," said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected independent policy institute. On a scale of one to 100, Ruttig put progress on peace talks "at somewhere between one and two."

"That (psychological warfare) is exactly what it is," said a former senior U.S. official in touch with the White House. "Petraeus has been upping the attack on the Taliban, and trying to intimidate, and at the same time, reaching out : 'let's talk.'" The former senior official requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing ties with the Obama administration.

If Ruttig and the rest are right – and there are some serious on-the-ground Afghanistan experts quoted above- then it's just a variant on the classic police interrogation ploy: "your pal has already told us everything and is trying to get a plea deal – make it easy on yourself and do the same".

Trouble is, it's not working and in the meantime the psyops ploy is getting in the way of actual real negotiations. Robert Dreyfuss in the Nation quotes experts who say that by excluding those who could really make a deal work – senior Taliban leaders and Pakistan – the psyops ploy is simply paving the way for a new civil war.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former US intelligence official who is now at the Middle East Institute…says that inside Afghanistan the anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun forces in the north and west of the country, including the remnants of the old Northern Alliance (NA) that fought the Taliban in the 1990s, won't easily agree to a deal with the Taliban, either, which is a huge problem for Karzai. Fearing that the Taliban might make a comeback, the Northern Alliance and its allies are rearming, securing weapons from Central Asia and other allies, Weinbaum says, in preparation for a potential civil war. And the ANA, the Afghan army that is being built brick by brick by the United States and NATO, would fragment and fall apart if there's a deal with the Taliban, with many of the ANA troops joining the NA. "If there's a chance that [the Taliban] would return, the army would break up," he says.

Caroline Wadhams, who leads the Afghanistan-Pakistan work at the Center for American Progress, agrees that the non-Pashtun forces in the north are preparing for civil war, if it comes to that. "I've heard about rearming in the north," she told me. "Part of it stems from the fear that if everything collapses, regardless of the peace talks, there'd be a return to civil war." Karzai, she says, is taking a great risk that people in Afghanistan's north and west would oppose the reconciliation with the Taliban that Karzai is trying to bring about. Both Wadhams and Weinbaum said that Karzai was at pains to name people to the High Peace Council (HPC), including former President Rabbani, who could help persuade northerners that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan isn't in the cards. Rabbani's job, says Weinbaum, is "to say to the north 'there's not going to be a deal that you can't subscribe to.' "

There's a problem with the other end of the plan too, killing Taliban commanders in the hope of breaking the insurgency into factions and forcing it into talks. Back to Jean MacKenzie's piece:

“There is not much hope for the moment that talks will yield positive results while the U.S. military is trying to bludgeon the mid-level and senior leadership of the Taliban,” said van Linschoten. “They are removing the people to talk to, fragmenting the insurgency more than it already is, and creating the space for a newer generation of people to move into leadership positions who are much less interested in political compromise.”

So what happens if the ploy doesn't work? The London Conference made it clear that Western leaders – especially those across the pond – expect reconciliation and negotiation to be the main fig leaf that allows an exit that preserves some "face". They've put some major money and a lot of political capital behind the idea – to the point where even Petraeus has said "this is how insurgencies end".

The longer this psyops goes on, promising talks and hinting of breakthroughs, the more it will undermine the alternative narrative that the Taliban have to be pounded into submission by military force first before they will come to the negotiating table. If by July 2011 no senior Taliban have "cracked", then those who have authorized and perpetrated this psyops ploy – basically lying in the hope of making the lie true – are going to be in some deep caca, career-wise. Even the Teflon General might not be able to sidestep the splatter. As for Karzai…

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