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Subliminal Messaging On Afghanistan

Posted by on November 23rd, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

A report last week by veteran Af/Pak analyst Ahmed Rashid, nicely timed for the Lisbon summit at which NATO rolled out its "aspirational" date of 2014 for an Afghan transition, says that Afghan president Hamid Karzai has never been so anti-Western and anti-American in his views. In an interview with Karzai, Rashid writes:

it was quite clear to me that his views on global events, on the future course of NATO’s military surge in southern Afghanistan, and on nation building efforts throughout his country have undergone a sea change. His single overriding aim now is making peace with the Taliban and ending the war—and he is convinced it will help resolve all the other problems he faces, such as corruption, bad governance, and the lack of an administration.

Karzai’s new outlook is the most dramatic political shift he has undergone in the twenty-six years that I have known him. Although it is partly fueled by conspiracy theories, it is also based on nine years of ever growing frustration with the West.

He no longer supports the war on terrorism as defined by Washington and says that the current military surge in the south by the United States and its NATO allies is unhelpful because it relies on body counts of dead Taliban as a measure of progress against the insurgency, which to many would be a throwback to Vietnam and a contradiction of Petraeus’s new counterinsurgency theory to win over the people.

…Karzai also maintains that there is a political alternative to NATO: much more of the onus could be placed on countries in the region– especially Iran and Pakistan—to end the war and help reach a settlement with the Taliban. Senior Western and Afghan officials in Kabul say Iran has stepped up its support to the Taliban in western Afghanistan in recent months, possibly as a bargaining chip for future talks on a peace settlement. For its part, Pakistan, where the entire leadership of the Taliban is based, wants a leading part in any talks that NATO or Karzai may have with the Taliban. Yet Karzai told me that in the last six months neither Iran nor Pakistan has provided any substantive support to facilitate peacemaking.

But it's not just Karzai "we" have a "problem" with. Now we have the case of the imposter Taliban, the shopkeeper from Quetta who was given pots of money by NATO in the mistaken belief that he was senior Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour come to negotiate a peace deal.

While Karzai says he has never met anyone claiming to be Mansour, in direct contradiction of reports on the affair, General David Petraeus says "That is not a surprise to see that particular story today." The latter is scarcely surprising either – NYT reporter Dexter Filkins is a favorite of the General's, often given the inside track by his staff. But if we take Petraeus and reports at face value then the imposter's been known about for some time. So why the timing of the story's release now, in the aftermath of Lisbon?

Well, the subliminal messaging of both these stories – that Karzai doesn't stand with the West any longer and that we've no idea if the people he's negotiating with are actually Taliban or not – is that the "negotiated settlement" track is likely a dead end. So we'd better get behind the 2014 transition track, right? That would very much suit General Petraeus.

Update: With truly magnificent timing, Michael Cohen has a great post on the Taliban imposter story:

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.

Excellent stuff, Michael.

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