Time to stop fighting and start talking
28 June, 2011
By Rahimullah Yusufzai
Afghanistan would return to the same uncertain situation that existed before December 2, 2009 when the recent decision by President Barack Obama to withdraw 33,000 US troops from the war-torn country by September 2012 is implemented. At that time, one-and-a-half year ago, he had ordered the military “surge” almost in desperation and deployed those soldiers who would now be pulled out.
The US then had 68,000 troops in Afghanistan and was struggling to contain the Taliban-led resistance that was gradually spreading from the Taliban strongholds in the Pashtun-populated southern and eastern Afghanistan to the north and west where they had been traditionally weak among the non-Pashtun population. Together with the troops provided by other Nato member countries, the total number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan at the time was around 100,000. There were thousands of private foreign contractors, or mercenaries if you will, also along with a sizeable Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
The situation wasn’t dire but the then US military commander General Stanley McChrystal, later disgraced and replaced for passing offensive remarks against President Obama and some of his security aides, wanted at least 40,000 extra troops to avoid defeat and break the Taliban momentum. His wish was reluctantly granted by Obama, though he sent 33,000 American troops only and ensured that the remaining 7,000 were made available by the British and other Nato members. To show his authority and remind everyone that the US military was under civilian control, he announced an exit strategy along with the military “surge” by promising to start withdrawing troops in July 2011. The strategy was criticised, among others by the rival Republican Party, as defeatist and termed by some a “surge to exit”.
Obama had devised this difficult balancing act due to political compulsions because he had to respond to the wishes of the anti-war camp in his Democratic Party and at the same time prove to the American people that he was strong on security and mindful of extending the power of the US to secure its global interest.
Much is being made of the Obama announcement to drawdown the US troops and hand over responsibility to the Afghan security forces to secure their country. It is being portrayed as fulfillment of a presidential promise made in December 2009 when the “surge” was ordered. A US president needs to fulfill commitments to look credible and more so if he is seeking a second term in office. However, a closer look at the timings chosen for the phased withdrawal of US troops betray the anxieties of a president with an eye on the next presidential election.
The 10,000 troops to be pulled out by the end of 2011 would be home before the February 2012 Iowa state caucus at the start of the nomination of the presidential candidates. Though Obama presently hasn’t got any real challenger for the job in the Democratic Party, it would be an advantage for him over all other candidates including the Republicans on account of the images of smiling and relieved American soldiers returning home from a tough duty in faraway Afghanistan.
Besides, the 33,000 “surge” troops would have returned to the US by September 2012 just before the election for the president. It would be perfect timing, though difficult questions would still be asked of Obama as to the purpose and achievements of the “surge” and also his roadmap for “finishing the job” in Afghanistan as he has so often declared. After all the Afghan war had become Obama’s war due to his willingness to triple the number of US troops in Afghanistan and commit every resource demanded by his military commanders ranging from McChrystal to General David Petraeus.
Though the gains made by the military “surge” have yet to be calculated and quantified, Obama’s supporters point out that the Taliban momentum has been halted and even reversed in their strongholds such as Kandahar, Helmand and Kunduz. However, such gains could be temporary and unsustainable in the face of a determined foe such as the Taliban, who, as a guerilla force, fight on their own terms, not those of the Americans.
Retreat is part of the Taliban strategy to minimise losses in the fight against a larger and better-equipped regular army backed by lethal airpower. The US officials also concede the fact that the battleground gains by the Nato forces in 2010-2011 are fragile. Moreover, the Taliban have tried, sometimes successfully, to cover up their losses in the south and east by undertaking a “surge” of their own in western, northern and central Afghanistan. The Taliban ability to extend their geographical reach to almost every province of Afghanistan and attract non-Pashtuns even if still in small numbers into their fold seems to have alarmed the US-led coalition forces and almost convinced them that they cannot be defeated. This admission has prompted the US and certain other Western nations having troops in Afghanistan to open channels of communication with the Taliban.
Despite denials, the Taliban don’t seem averse to talking to the Americans and some of their Western allies as they believe that the US-led Nato holds the key to ending the Afghan conflict. They still don’t want to talk to President Hamid Karzai, who in their view is powerless and “puppet” of the US. The US, however, would want the Taliban to eventually make a deal with the Afghan government to reinforce the latter’s legitimacy. If the US had its way, it would want disarmed Taliban brought into the political mainstream after accepting Afghanistan’s constitution, in an amended form if need be. This would be an ideal solution of a conflict that began with the communist Saur Revolution in April 1978 and became intense due to the subsequent Soviet invasion, Afghan mujahideen infighting, Taliban takeover and arrival of Al-Qaeda on the scene. The US invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan 10-year ago to avenge the 9/11 attacks turned the conflict not only into America’s longest war but also one of the costliest and trickiest. It also became a test of Nato’s credibility as it struggles to avoid defeat at the hands of the rag-tag Taliban guerilla force in its first war away from its western borders.
It cannot be easy for the US and its allies to agree to talk to the Taliban after having refused to do so earlier and demonised them to no limit. One relevant question that President Obama needs to answer is his refusal to talk to the Taliban before the military “surge” as this could have avoided the human and material losses since December 2009. In fact, the “surge” brought more foreign troops and weapons to Afghanistan, led to ferocious fighting and caused violence, bloodshed and displacement on a scale not seen before. More importantly, the “surge” didn’t weaken the Taliban or strengthen the Karzai government.
Still the decision to talk should be appreciated as it is admission on the part of the US and the Taliban that they cannot defeat each other. It is time to stop fighting and start talking. As one understands, the two sides have agreed to hold secret talks and issue denials in case their meetings become known to the media. The first rounds have been held in Qatar and Germany and another round was planned in Dubai. These are preliminary meetings in which the two sides would size up each other and reiterate their known positions. A breakthrough is unlikely at this stage and none should be expected.
The US would be wrong if it concludes that the Taliban have been fatigued by the long fighting and have agreed to talk out of weakness. The Taliban would be making a mistake if they believe that the US was again running away from Afghanistan. Both sides need to make a deal on the basis of their existing instead of desired strength. A note of caution though is in order because no past deal in context of the Afghan conflict has worked.