The latest reports out of Afghanistan make for interesting speculation. Earlier today Education Minister Farooq Wardak, in Britain for the Education World Forum, told the Times Educational Supplement (TES) that the Taliban has undergone a cultural shift since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
"It is attitudinal change, it is behavioral change, it is cultural change,” he said. "What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls' education."
Liberals and conservatives shared a few eye rolls over this thought. As most reports point out, the Taliban has given no indication of such a policy change. However its religious opposition to female education, something Wardak notes isn’t particular to the Taliban, was amplified by the role of Westerners in their curriculum. The general consensus is that female education offers the Taliban a workable concession in negotiations with the Afghan government. Thus the group will keep its cards close until then.
Wardak added, "I hope, God willing, soon there will be peaceful negotiation, a meaningful negotiation with our own opposition and that will not compromise the basic human rights and basic principles which have been guiding us to provide quality and balanced education to our people."
The prospect of developing negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban generates several immediate questions. Just how deep does U.S. involvement run? Is Washington behind President Hamid Karzai every step of the way, or are negotiations primarily held on bilateral terms with Taliban commanders? How sincere is Washington’s opposition to high-level negotiations with Taliban chief Mullah Omar?
And does America risk being left out of a final agreement if it wishes to pursue the military option over a settlement with the Taliban?
One must assume U.S. officials provide active council to Kabul’s negotiations; however this isn’t the same as supporting those negotiations. The battle between the White House and Pentagon over Taliban reconciliation continues to tilt in Petraeus’ and Secretary Robert Gates’s favor: capitulation over negotiation. While General David Petraeus made a motto out of being unable to “kill our way out of Afghanistan,” this is the strategy currently employed under his watch to “create space” for the Afghan government. Yet Petraeus also holds so little faith in Karzai that he’s gone local to circumvent him, a questionable long-term strategy.
The resilient Taliban network shows no hint of caving in the upcoming years, leaving political resolution as the only possibility of breaking Afghanistan’s violent cycle. Afghans, Pakistanis, and the Taliban have reached this conclusion. U.S. officials claim to have done the same, but their actions speak otherwise.
Washington will have to change its demands to hold a real stake in Afghanistan’s political resolution - the longer the occupation, the less likely this is. No one will cater to the primary obstacle of reconciliation with Taliban leadership. Although rumors regularly surface alleging that Washington will exchange constitutional guarantees for Taliban autonomy in the south, what if Kabul and the Taliban seal an agreement with only minor U.S. input?
This dynamic will be critical to watch in 2011 and beyond.
In a separate development, ISAF released its compensation figures for the last two months of fighting in Kandahar and Helmand province. So did a local government delegation appointed to the task, which estimated that U.S. and NATO operations caused $100 million in damage to crops and homes in southern Kandahar. Citing Kandahar Governor Toryalai Weesa and Zhari district leader Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, ISAF rejected this figure as “extremely exaggerated,” with Sarhadi explaining that five people often ask for the same compensation.
Zhari district, one of the Taliban’s original bastions, currently experiences focused U.S. activity after a wider operation in Kandahar broke down.
That a local government delegation would overestimate the accounts of local Afghans clearly exists within the realm of possibility. We also know that U.S. underestimates in loss of life and property occupy this realm; ISAF payed out $1.4 million to Afghans over the last two months. Regardless of whether the discrepancy is that disproportionate, Washington would likely pay this “fine” every day to continue its bombardment in southern Afghanistan. But while this may allow for an unimpeded counter-terrorist campaign throughout 2011, true counterinsurgency wouldn’t be so willing to make this swap.
If U.S. and NATO operations fail to blunt the Taliban’s summer momentum, blame from the resulting damage will fall squarely on Washington’s back.