STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
US Task Force Brings New Pressure to Settle With the Taliban
By Staff News & Analysis - March 24, 2011

Former diplomats push for immediate talks with Taliban … An international team of former diplomats called Wednesday on the Obama administration and its Afghan partners to push now for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, as US-led forces near a peak. A task force led by Thomas Pickering, a former number three at the US State Department, and Lakhdar Brahimi, a former UN special representative for Afghanistan, said Afghan President Hamid Karzai's US-backed government has as strong a hand as it will get. In a New York Times column timed with the release of the team's report, Pickering and Brahimi said Washington "has been holding back from direct negotiations, hoping the ground war will shift decisively in its favor. "But we believe the best moment to start the process toward reconciliation is now, while (US-led) force levels are near their peak," the pair wrote, nearly 10 years after the United States launched its war in Afghanistan. The report itself argued that "neither side can expect to vanquish the other militarily in the foreseeable future," as some of its authors, like Lawrence Korb, said the US-led military surge has stopped Taliban momentum. – AFP

Dominant Social Theme: Can't we all just get along?

Free-Market Analysis: The New York Times and a high-level US task force (see article excerpt above) released statements yesterday (the Times actually ran an editorial) calling for a negotiated solution to the Afghanistan war. As recently reported in these modest pages, the calls come against a backdrop of considerable anger in Afghanistan over US army "Kill Teams" that apparently took up to 4,000 or more photos of Afghan war dead, many of them civilians. In some of the photos, soldiers pose with the slain individuals as if they were trophies. There is currently a military trial ongoing over these charges and one soldier who just pled guilty is expected to cooperate with the military's case against others who may be involved.

As gruesome as the charges are, they are only one strand (albeit a shocking one) in a considerably larger tapestry of frustration, conflict and stalemate that has come to characterize NATO's and America's Afghan war. While Pentagon brass have remained firm that draw-downs of troops will occur substantially in 2014, there are growing questions as to whether the increasingly disaffected American public and the strategic situation in Afghanistan itself will allow the US military to wait that long.

According to the Century Foundation, the sponsor of the task force on the Afghan war that received considerable publicity yesterday, "[A] growing sense of stalemate helps to set the stage for the beginning of a political phase to conclude the conflict." The report points out that the while the American public is increasingly disaffected, the Taliban themselves may be realizing that plans to re-impose a fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan are not likely to bear fruit. The Taliban, the report indicates, may be open to negotiations given that "winning is not so certain as it used to be." The task force reportedly called an international facilitator to work under the umbrella of the United Nations in creating an atmosphere for peace talks among all parties.

The task force did not minimize the difficulties that such talks would entail, calling them "highly complex." Such conversations would involve numerous parties including the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and other ethnic Afghan forces (traditionally opposed to the Afghan Taliban) including Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara tribes and clans. Numerous nations would be party to the talks including the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran and even Islamic-oriented Central Asian states. Russia, China, the EU, Japan and Turkey were also mentioned as necessary adjuncts to the talks.

The US military plan as endorsed by the Obama administration has been for a "surge" in American troops to put such pressure on the Taliban that leaders would become more amenable to a negotiated settlement. While this strategy's implementation seems debatable at best, the task force makes the point that now is the best time for the US (never mind the Taliban) to negotiate because US military involvement is at a high point and drawdowns have not begun. The US military intends to begin a modest troop reduction in July, which will culminate in a more aggressive drawdown by the end of 2014. The plan is for the Afghans themselves to take over security as Americans (and NATO) depart.

There have also been calls for Turkey to host a diplomatic office for the Taliban as part of a larger outreach to jump-start some sort of peace talks. However, Radio Free Europe (FRE) reports that the Taliban themselves seem lukewarm at best to the idea. Rahim Ullah Yousafzai, an executive editor at the Pakistan newspaper "The News International," was interviewed by Radio Free Europe and downplayed the possibilities of such an office.

Yousafzai, according to FRE, is known for conducting the last credible interview with Osama bin Laden "before he went underground (likely 6 feet)," and he reportedly pointed out that the Taliban puts little trust in Turkey, which is seen as an ally of the United States and Europe. (Turkey is actually a NATO-member and has thus been involved in fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan.) Yousafzai said that the Taliban would more likely favor opening an office in Afghanistan, though not perhaps in Kabul. "A peaceful place," is how Yousafzai put it.

The idea of a Turkey mission for the Taliban may not be realized, but RFE is also reporting "U.S. representatives are engaged in talks with the Taliban … With whom, exactly, and about what, remains a mystery," the outlet adds. In fact, RFE is right to be skeptical. The last time the West was engaged in talks with a high-level Taliban official, he turned out to be an imposter and the talks, which had been pursued at some considerable expense by the British, were revealed to be a hoax.

RFE points out that there is considerable sentiment among Afghans for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, but that some 55 percent of Afghans might not be enthused about having the Taliban back as part of an official government. "No one should assume that Afghans, whatever their ethnic backgrounds, will welcome Taliban members into the government no matter what the circumstances," RFE observes.

RFE reporters, however, do not qualify the 55 percent figure. Since perhaps half of Afghanistan is made up of ethnicities other than the Pashtun/Taliban, it is quite likely that a good percentage of Afghans do not want a renewed Taliban presence in Afghanistan. In fact, this has likely always been the case, but it actually makes little difference. The insurgents blowing themselves up are mostly Pashtun/Taliban; the Taliban recruits from the Pashtuns and it is therefore the Pashtuns that are leading the resistance against Western (Anglo-American) control of the region.

That a task seeded with respected American officials is emphasizing the urgency of an immediate dialogue with the Taliban is a hopeful sign. But it takes two sides to negotiate; we wonder if the Taliban have come under sufficient pressure to compromise. Certainly, the stance of the US and its allies regarding an eventual drawdown (even one as far off as 2014) has not much helped the allied cause. The Pashtun culture has been planted in Afghanistan for perhaps 2000 years or more and has apparently been fending off invasions for nearly that long.

After Thoughts

We wonder if at this juncture there is much incentive for the Taliban or the larger Pashtuns tribes to negotiate (seriously, anyway). With the American public expressing considerable frustration with the war, with significant budgetary difficulties being faced as regards its prosecution and with other conflicts either taking place or on the horizon in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Taliban may believe they can simply wait out the process. Would such an assumption prove incorrect?

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