A British memo that advocates reconciliation with the Taliban – all the way to the top level with the Quetta Shura – has surfaced. The BBC has the report:
“We must weaken and divide the Taliban if we are to reduce the insurgency to a level that can be managed and contained by the Afghan Security Forces,” begins a section headed “Agenda Items 3”.
“This can be achieved by a combination of military pressure and clear signals that the option of an honourable exit from the fight exists.
“Putting in place the right combination of carrot and stick, at the right moment, will be critical to changing the calculations of individual commanders and their men.”
The memo then calls for an Afghan-led, internationally backed process that works on three levels.
Firstly “tactical”, involving reintegrating foot soldiers and their immediate commanders.
Secondly “operational”, involving the reintegration of the Taliban’s “shadow governors”, senior commanders and their forces.
Finally, what is called “strategic”. The latter is described as “reconciliation – a settlement with (most of) the Quetta Shura.”
The memo ignores the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and in NATO capitals, and is fueled by a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the Taliban.
First, in order for any sort of reconciliation to be effective, the insurgents must feel they have lost the advantage, both militarily and with support among the people. In case the authors of this plan haven’t been paying attention, the Taliban do not perceive they’ve lost local support or are at a military disadvantage. In fact, the Taliban are in a far better position today than at any time since they were ousted from power in 2001. They’ve openly said this, and the facts on the ground support it.
In order for the Taliban to be pushed to the negotiating table, they must suffer defeats on the battlefield – the Taliban must be driven back from areas where they’ve made gains over the past several years, such as in the West, North, and Center, and must lose ground in the South and East. The Afghan people must perceive the Taliban as losing; they must detect that the Coalition and Afghan forces are in control, will remain in control, and will eventually provide the basic needs of local governance. In order to accomplish this, NATO must commit tens of thousands of forces (the Afghan Army and police are not ready, and won’t be for years or even decades). It isn’t clear that the estimated 25,000 to 40,000 US troops that will likely be deployed are enough to deal the Taliban such a quick, major blow.
Instead, all that is coming from NATO capitals is talk of negotiations with the Taliban while the Taliban are strong; delays in decision making over strategy and troop deployments; talk from Brits of withdrawing forces from Helmand in 2010 and turning control over to the Afghan security forces, which are incapable of taking the reins; the US withdrawing from rural areas and allowing the Taliban to operate in the open; the US senior general in Afghanistan is at odds with the ambassador over troop deployments, etc. The Taliban smell blood in the water, and the Afghan people see weakness.
Second, the timeframe for executing the reconciliation plan is absurd: The advocates say the low-level commanders and foot soldiers can be integrated within three months of execution, “reconciled” Taliban leaders will be removed from the UN sanctions list in six months, and a national loya jirga, or council, would be called in two years [this appears to be the “strategic reconciliation” with the Quetta Shura mentioned above]. How can this happen without committing to bloodying the Taliban?
Third, the entire premise that the Taliban are a loosely organized, shallow, nationalistic insurgency that is craving a political solution with the West is just flat out wrong. In addition, the writers of the British memo seem to completely ignore the influence of al Qaeda. Thomas Joscelyn and I made the case that the Taliban factions and al Qaeda cooperate far more closely than analysts think in “Al Qaeda is the tip of the jihadist spear.” In fact, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network are closely integrated, while the Quetta Shura and al Qaeda maintain very close ties.
Finally, what is to be done about the Taliban operating from Pakistan? This isn’t even addressed, and as long as that safe haven exists, the Taliban will remain dangerous in Afghanistan.
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