As Washington attempts to spin its back-channel negotiations with the Taliban into a position of strength - masking an unreachable desire to eradicate the insurgency - Taliban officials have attacked Afghanistan’s political sphere with equal vigor. Spokesman Zabibullah Mujahid clarified the group’s position amid the fallout of urinating Marines, explaining, "This will not affect the negotiations with the Americans because they are only about the release of prisoners and the office in Qatar.”
"It is for this purpose and for bringing about peace and stability in Afghanistan that we have increased our political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world in order to solve the current ongoing situation," Mujahid said in an emailed statement. "But this understanding does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration."
These comments strike an obvious contrast with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently assured Americans and Afghans that the Obama administration remains “committed to the red lines that we have consistently laid out”: renouncing violence, breaking from al-Qaeda, supporting the Afghan constitution and women’s equality. The combined rhetoric also demonstrates the illusion of private diplomacy during fourth-generation warfare (4GW); while U.S. and European diplomats hope to achieve a breakthrough out of the media spotlight, they are currently limited to increasing face-to-face familiarity between each side.
Afghanistan’s battlefield and international media function as an extension of the political back-room, an open arena where private leverage is competed for in public. Sincere as the Taliban is in pursuing a favorable settlement, the group is currently using negotiations to confuse and outmaneuver U.S. policymakers.
The insurgency has since followed up Mujahid’s statements by releasing a “formal proclamation of victory” on its website. Aware of Washington’s attempt to divide its lower ranks, the Taliban is feeling the pressure to defend its political feelers as battlefield tools. U.S. officials will surely scoff at the notion of victory after spending 2011 “breaking the Taliban’s momentum,” but the group’s latest statements paint an accurate image of its strategic mindset. Even if the insurgency’s momentum has been broken, a difficult claim to prove outright, this outcome is less noteworthy than U.S. officials acknowledge. By basing Afghanistan’s narrative on the fact that NATO was losing the battle as late as summer 2009, Washington is now justifying its march towards victory on an uphill stalemate.
Stalemate can become victory in the insurgent’s world - mere survival against overwhelming forces can become a triumph. The Taliban was nearly destroyed by Western firepower during 2001‘s invasion and left for dead, only to rebuild itself into a more lethal force of some 30,000 fighters. This network was strong enough to weather America’s surge without capitulating, and with Washington tacitly admitting that the Taliban cannot be destroyed politically or militarily, the insurgency is eager to capitalize on this concession.
“It is proved to the world that the Islamic Emirate is deeply rooted internally in the Afghan nation and externally in the whole Islamic ummah. Militarily successful resistance against a gigantic international alliance, full presence on the whole soil and overall perseverance are the signs and secrets of the Islamic Emirate.”
According to Washington’s preliminary terms surrounding the release of Guantánamo prisoners, the Taliban’s high council was supposed to voice support for Afghanistan’s political process - which it did by declaring victory through the political process. Establishing an office in Qatar is being spun as another political victory and thus a display of strength, contrary to America’s demand that the Taliban use its office for non-recruiting purposes. The insurgency’s “victory” statement took numerous shots at “the international invasion.”
“The contractors of the international invasion can no more deceive the nation by their baseless talks. They used the word ‘peace’ as a propaganda fragment to deceive the people. But today as their guardians and supporters are fed up militarily and logistically with this war and are planning for retreat, they are giving contradictory statements which show their complete confusion and embarrassment.”
Many of these criticism hit their mark despite the Taliban’s outlandish rhetoric. Regional actors and observers view U.S.-Taliban negotiations as a hollow platform, a stalling tactic by both sides that lacks serious input from Kabul and Islamabad. Although Clinton and U.S. officials “have repeatedly said publicly that any reconciliation effort must be led by the Afghans themselves,” Washington seeks to negotiate directly with the Taliban in order to retain control of the terms. Kabul and Islamabad are viewed with mutual suspicion, equally capable of strong-arming the Taliban or reducing U.S. influence after the war ends.
Both capitals are trying to jump into negotiations at their preliminary stage instead of waiting for Washington to produce its own results. Islamabad, for instance, allegedly wants the U.S. to drop its preconditions, while Kabul holds the opposite position. M K Bhadrakumar of Asia Times Online adds that Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara representatives oppose negotiations until more conditions are met - such as their inclusion. U.S. officials speak of developing “confidence” with the Taliban, when the surrounding environment is experiencing a rampant crisis of confidence.
This disconnect applies friction across America and Afghanistan’s public spheres, further reducing the odds of a political settlement by 2014.
Washington’s military superiority is mirrored by its irreversible political weaknesses, generating an unfavorable dilemma as Western powers attempt to extract themselves from counterinsurgency. Erasing America and Taliban’s “red-lines” through compromise verges on the impossible; Washington demands an end to violence and a post-2014 task force, a condition that the Taliban’s leadership flatly opposes. So what if they don’t agree to Washington’s demands? Will Obama halt a withdrawal that is overwhelmingly popular with Democrats? Will a GOP candidate recommit to an unpopular war?
Accepting the fact that U.S. forces can raid Afghanistan day and night for the next 10 years, the Taliban’s leadership has adhered to guerrilla warfare by exhausting America’s political and economic capital at home. This is the definition of a stalemate, and it spells victory to the insurgent who should have been wiped out years ago.