February 1, 2013

Taliban "Rift" Conceals Similar U.S. Divisions

As some parts of the Obama administration explore safe passage out of Afghanistan and Pakistan's harsh battlefields, other parts must remain on the offensive in their campaign against the Taliban network. This asymmetric task naturally extends beyond the military battlefield to global media, where the battle for Afghanistan is waged just as fiercely by the Taliban and NATO forces.

Both sides follow the rule of Propaganda 101: lead with truth and end in falsity.

Speaking to Jim Michaels, USA TODAY's military editor, on the topic of Mullah Omar's "code of conduct," Pentagon official David Sedney says that Omar's order to avoid civilian casualties has agitated the foot soldiers that rely on IEDs and suicide vests to attack U.S. and Afghan convoys. This order was first given in response to the Obama administration incoming surge, as part of its own PSYOPS for Afghan "hearts and minds," but the operational side of Omar's tactic didn't fit with the Taliban's style of fighting. Unarmored guerrillas need explosives to counter NATO armor and penetrate security countdowns, and the constant nature of IEDs inevitably outpaces the civilian casualties from U.S. air-strikes and raids. 

Sedney, a deputy assistant Secretary of Defense, paraphrased the thought process of an average Taliban gunman: "'You're telling us to keep fighting and we have no choice but to use those methods.'"

"That's creating a lot of tension."

The Pentagon is obviously motivated to announce its interpretation through the U.S. mainstream (and in a brief report with no alternative viewpoint). Faced with a disbelieving, war-weary public and the sobering reality that the Taliban isn't near capitulation, the Obama administration must pry inside the insurgency in order to generate negotiating leverage in 2013 and 2014. Effectively spreading division amongst the Taliban's long-term strategists could be a quick means of bringing pragmatic individuals into Kabul's political fold, or at least driving some foot soldiers into reconciliation programs.

"It's already clear that some parts of the Taliban are interested in a political solution," Sedney explains.

However the Taliban are likely to unite against any Pentagon official, and Sedney's rhetoric appears to be aimed at Americans before Afghans. His points of friction are common knowledge to the Taliban and foreign observers alike; The Daily Beast and other U.S. media have covered the issue in relative detail by tracking down players in the Taliban's mid-level and senior leadership. The "very large losses" endured by foot soldiers is frequently cited as a main source of contention, and one can imagine the feelings of disgruntled or tired guerrillas as they question Mullah Omar's alleged home inside Pakistani territory. 

Sedney and the Pentagon may be correct to assume, "The contrast between that and the life of the leaders who are staying in Pakistan has become even greater." Yet the Taliban remains operational and potent to this day - U.S. officials are engaging in PSYOPS precisely because the insurgency has maintained a resilience beyond Washington's public expectations. Unless the Taliban's leadership makes an exceptionally rash decision, few guerrillas out of some 25,000 will ultimately choose Kabul's authority and the presence of American soldiers over "The Commander of the Faithful." Most soldiers fight far from their supreme commanders anyway, and managing to assassinate Omar wouldn't guarantee their surrender. 

Additionally, Omar's shura should be interested in a political solution because the Taliban lack the strength needed to openly defeat a conventional army. Stalemate is victory and political power the prize.

Omar's dilemma lies in the terms that Washington, at this point, refuses to give him: the withdrawal of every last American soldier, spy and war plane. Thus the Taliban is compelled to wage war until 2014 at the earliest, when its actions may force the U.S. into a smaller post-2014 role, and possibly beyond to secure control over its traditional territory. This policy could create the same political threat to U.S. influence that Muqtada al-Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah pose in their respective countries.

Nor is the U.S. position towards Afghanistan's hazardous negotiations any surer than the Taliban's. Three years after President Barack Obama's first surge troops landed in Kandahar and Helmand provinces - with the intention of "breaking the Taliban's momentum" and strong-arming Omar to the negotiating table - Ambassador James Cunningham recently told reporters that the “process that hasn’t even really begun.” Washington as a whole remains split over its options: negotiate soon or continue fighting until the Taliban's leadership softens its terms over a long-term U.S. presence.

The White House and Pentagon are also locked in disagreements over how many troops to leave, who to leave, how long to leave them, and the types of missions they will be assigned. This decision was initially expected in December 2012 and later discussed during President Hamid Karzai's stateside visit in mid-January, when an implausible "zero option" was floated for political purposes. A final decision on the extension of U.S. forces hinges on a wide variety of competing factors in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad. The result is two opposing scenarios of equal instability: the U.S. will lose its military presence in the end, as in Iraq's case, or keep a military-intelligence force and continue fighting indefinitely until one side concedes politically.

Iraq's ongoing insurgency suggests that Afghanistan's war won't be ending when Obama says it will.

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