October 2, 2012

U.S.-Taliban Negotiations Need A Reality Check

Due to each side's posturing and their interrelations with external forces, gauging the real status of negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban's leadership is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, this New York Times report appears to be truer than false. Its contents conform to the present reality surrounding Afghanistan, and thus match The Trench's continual observation of one of the weakest links in U.S. policy.

According to several anonymous officials, the Obama administration has decided to "scale back plans" for a U.S.-negotiated political settlement with Mullah Omar's inner shura (along with other Taliban factions such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin). Washington intends to distance itself through the proxy of a joint-committee with Pakistan, in order to vet potential new Taliban interlocutors, and pair this move with other incentives to "break the ice" with Kabul. This formula makes a degree of sense on one level. For years the Taliban has refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, encouraging Washington to cut out Hamid Karzai and generating a new source of friction in the process. With the U.S. backed away from the table, Afghanistan's power centers may be able to reach a more permanent agreement on national terms.

"Now American officials say they have reduced their goals further — to patiently laying the groundwork for eventual peace talks after they leave. American officials say they hope that the Taliban will find the Afghan Army a more formidable adversary than they expect and be compelled, in the years after NATO withdraws, to come to terms with what they now dismiss as a “puppet” government."

Mualavi Qalanmudin, a former Taliban minister who now sits on the High Peace Council, expects the Taliban to maintain its opposition against the Karzai administration until the bulk of U.S. troops have exited. This time would open an ideal window for cutting an agreement that yields territory and preserves their network. However the Taliban must be feeling more confident as the U.S. surge exits and NATO's alliance continues to shake, and the Obama administration's plan begins to roll downhill from here. Rather than a savvy political move, the administration is trying to salvage its strategy after the Taliban dodged the knockout blow of Obama and Petraeus's surge. Fresh Pentagon estimates still hover around 20,000 full and part-time fighters, while independent estimates push the number higher. The Taliban also find Afghanistan's security forces to be more penetrable and malleable than NATO soldiers.

Consider the damage that al-Qaeda's cells still inflict on Iraq's army and police, as well as the Taliban's superior strength and how far Iraq's security forces are ahead of Afghanistan's. Or consider how the Haqqanis view themselves as Afghan Taliban and how Washington just branded the group as a terrorist organization.

“I don’t see it happening in the next couple years,” said a senior coalition officer says of a peace settlement. “It’s a very resilient enemy, and I’m not going to tell you it’s not. It will be a constant battle, and it will be for years.”

This source utilizes the same propaganda that most Pentagon officials have memorized: the Taliban's momentum has been "blunted," "halted" or even "reversed," but the insurgency remains a "formidable" enemy. Translation: we're winning but we need to keep fighting. Obama similarly highlights the Taliban's losses and downplays its survival, however the insurgency's overall structure has been left intact. Why, then, would the Taliban unconditionally agree to Washington's terms when it still occupies a relative position of strength? In light of these factors, military insiders could be pushing back against Obama's new promise that "our war will be over in 2014.” The Pentagon surely hopes to keep a residual presence in Afghanistan after losing Iraq, and Obama's campaigning stands directly in the way.

This layer of friction between the White House and Pentagon, as well as GOP and mainstream opposition to "negotiating with extremists," stacks on top of Afghanistan's internal dilemmas.

Equally worrisome is the unrealistic settlement between Washington, Kabul and Afghanistan's neighbors: Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. Opposing power politics often reach agreements over proxy territory, except this specific web continues to thicken instead of unravel. Bluntly speaking, Syria is now absorbing a higher percentage of the diplomatic energy released by Washington, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. Pakistan and India are nowhere close to resolving their territorial disputes or ceasing their race for self-interests in Afghanistan. The odds of reaching a negotiated settlement cannot be raised much higher than 0% when division exists at the local, national, regional and international levels of Afghanistan's conflict. More than one factor needs to change significantly.

The Trench shares its observations with many others when suspecting that U.S. "negotiations" created a front for ongoing military operations. The Obama administration has yet to pursue a resolution on sincere terms, instead demanding unconditional surrender from the Taliban: renounce al-Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution and lay down arms. Since the agreement of all three terms was unrealistic from the beginning, the negotiating process itself has shared in this futility. Washington needs to set a concrete agenda on realistic conditions, otherwise the messy end of Vietnam is not an unrealistic possibility; while the military aspect is unlikely to be as severe as Saigon's fall, the political side of a diplomatic failure will reverberate across the region.

Failure to produce an agreement equals a long-term, low-intensity conflict with no end in sight.

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