Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Come Mr. Taliban sit and treat with us. Could taking one step back purchase two steps forward?

Pakistani army Major Ali Iqbal pens an interesting article at Small Wars Journal, in which he argues that the best long term strategy to defeat the Taliban is to treat with them, and make concessions. The argument can be boiled down to this series of statements:

1. The Taliban claim that they want peace, and will lay down arms if we negotiate settlements that allows imposition of sharia law in local areas where they remain popular. They say this is really all they want. They say that if this is given, and foreign forces leave, they will disarm, and cease hostilities.

2. Large parts of the Afghan population believe the Taliban are good guys fighting imperialist foreign forces. They want Afghanistan to regain former glory and independence. They fear for traditional ways of life, see the Tallies as defending that way of life.

3. Given that 1-3 are true, let us suppose we have two options.

a. Treat with the Tallies, that is, engage in .."talks, parleys, overtures and concessions to the Taliban.." and give concession in those areas where they are popular. Be sure to include the locals in the negotiations.

b. Refuse to treat with the Tallies.

Now, taking the latter option first:

4. If 3b, the perceptions will not change or will do so very slowly, and chances of victory are low. The Afghan government will continue to be perceived as weak or illegitimate. Conditions will continue to deteriorate. Not good for us.

And as to the former option:

5. If 3a, the Tallies/Locals will come to agreement with ISAF forces, and will either be given freedom to move in these areas or take over effective control of the areas. One of two things will result. Peace will break out (deemed very unlikely by Iqbal) or the Taliban will revert to form, carry out their true totalitarian intentions.

6. Well, if peace breaks out, that aint bad.

7. If, as is much more likely, the Taliban revert to form, they will suffer an irreparable loss of support from the general populace and important tribal and village leaders, because they will have treated with these entities previously to the freedom of movement being given or the governing takeover being allowed. Local entities will invite back ISAF and Afghan government forces, and aid in eradicating the Tallies. We will attain victory by 'taking a step back, before taking two steps forward.'

Iqbal offers an instructive case from recent Pakistani history. The Pakistani government made a calculated risk to allow the imposition of Sharia in the SWAT valley. They did this fully expecting that the Tallies would become oppressive. They did. The locals revolted, and aided Pakistani forces in pushing the Taliban out. One step back, two steps forward

Some thoughts on this: Treating with the Taliban would be treating with the people that were direct sponsors of UBL and his attacks of 2001. Quite aside from the domestic outrage that would probably ensue upon publicity of this move, is it morally right for the U.S. to negotiate with these people? Would it be alright it those negotiations were carried on under the aegis of ISAF, and if we recused ourselves, for lack of a better term, as a signal not only to the Taliban that we do not consider them to be worthy members of the moral community, but also to our own public? Would this be alright if we have reasonable assurance that the one step back will indeed bring on the two or three steps forward, and the ultimate elimination of the Taliban as a threat?

Will ceding control and/or freedom of movement to the Tallies run too great a risk of creating areas from which the Taliban can once again cooperate with Al Qaeda in planning attacks on Western targets, and/or acquiring WMD?

I tend to think that there are some other options besides (a) and (b), that are at least as likely to work.

3c. (Iqbal light) Treat only with lower level Taliban, and men that are the Afghan equivalent of the local tribes, and groups of young men that had been cooperating with the Iraqi insurgency, but who flipped when we paid them, and provided human intel when we needed it. Continue to make best efforts to kill the upper echelon Taliban.

3d. Don't treat with Taliban at all, but only with the locals, (yes, including even those that have previously supported and/or fought with the Tallies) and provide them with civil military advisory teams while continuing to train, patrol with them and build up infrastructure, schools, and other hearts and minds stuff.

I think that enough Afghans are already quite well aware of the true colors of the Taliban, after having had them as the national government in the years preceding the war. It is probably not necessary to take that one step back, in order to 're-teach that lesson.'

It seems that (3c) and (3d) are at least as likely as (3a) to bring about ultimate success. Additionally, to be perceived as suddenly negotiating with the Taliban at the highest level will give the appearance of fecklessness to the general Afghan populace. If it is true that they respect power, and respect the moral high ground (as Iqbal also points out) won't this be seen as ceding that moral high ground, and as a sign of weakness? It might well also be seen as at least a potential abandonment by those Afghans that have been cooperating with ISAF forces despite the threat of reprisal. That would certainly be seen as breaking promises, and immoral in other ways.