PEACE PARLAYS IN AFGHANISTAN: A COMMENT
"LONDON/KABUL (Reuters) - For the first time in the nine-year war in Afghanistan, all the main parties involved -- from the government to insurgents, from Washington to Pakistan, are seriously considering ways of trying to reach a peace deal.
Official sources from different countries interviewed by Reuters say current "talks about talks" are fragile, preliminary and liable to break down at any time.
"The outcome is not in sight at the moment," said one official involved in talks about Afghanistan, "but we can say that the political process has been set into motion."
All three main insurgent groups -- the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani network and the Hizb-ul-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- are involved in informal talks on how to open a more structured peace process.
Significantly, non-U.S. sources say Washington has given a far higher level of endorsement to talks with insurgents -- held either by Afghans or through third parties -- than before.
"The thing that's changed this time round is the American knowledge of what is going on and an increased appetite from the actual insurgency to engage," said a U.N. source with knowledge of the talks.
"The Americans are not sure whether to call it endorsement or engagement," said one non-American official. "Nevertheless they are now convinced about the utility of engagement."
Washington has acknowledged the need for an eventual political settlement as a war increasingly unpopular at home drags into its tenth year".
Myra McDonald, "Analysis: Afghan Talks gains pace; U.S. engages: sources", 14 October, 2010, in www.reuters.com.
"There also are too few data to quantify or map two critical aspects of the war. The prospects for any form of political accommodation with elements of the Taliban and insurgency remain unclear, and most of the practical steps necessary to bring insurgents back into Afghan society are still in the conceptual and planning phase. The political dimension of the war is as critical as the military, governance, and civil/economic dimensions, but it is too early to know how such efforts will be approached in any detail, much less whether any given approach will succeed.
A war this uncertain and experimental requires realistic goals and expectations. It requires transparency to ensure it is fought effectively and address each key challenge realistically. It requires an integrated civil-military effort that focuses on creating effective action in the field rather than new concepts and hollow efforts at coordination. It requires a kind of execution that builds trust and credibility by underpromising and overperforming. The extent to which the US and ISAF reports deal honestly with all of the issues and challenges outlined in these three reports in the coming months will be a critical indicator of whether the US has the leadership required to make this happen.
Most importantly, indicator after indicator in these reports provides a warning that success must be “conditions-based.” No one can guarantee victory, or that temporary victory will produce anything like a lasting end-state in either country. No one can yet promise that the war can be won in any sense in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. One can, however, virtually promise that there is no chance of winning under the conditions reflected in currently available data unless the US and its allies set credible goals, and plan for realistic timelines that are adjusted to match the actual capabilities that are demonstrated in the field. If these indicators justify any prediction about the war, it is that the success or failure of the new strategy cannot be decisively demonstrated in 2011. Having enough strategic patience to wait to see if the war can be won is the only alternative to defeat".
Anthony Cordesman, "Afghanistan: a progress report," 15 September 2010, in www.csis.org.
"If for the moment we consider the pure concept of war, we should have to say that the political purpose of war had no connection with war itself; for if war is an act of violence meant to force the enemy to do our will its aim would have always and solely to be to overcome the enemy and disarm him. That aim is derived from the theoretical concept of war; but since many wars do actually come very close to fulfilling it, let us examine this kind of war first of all....The fighting forces must be destroyed: that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight. Whenever we use the phrase 'destruction of the enemy's forces' this alone is what we mean. The country must be occupied; otherwise the enemy could raise fresh military forces. Yet both these things may be done and the war, that is the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy's will has not been broken: in other words, so long as the enemy government and its allies have not been driven to ask for peace, or the population made to submit."
Karl von Clausewitz, Vom Kreig [On War], edited and translated by Sir Michael Howard & Peter Paret, 1984, originally published 1832, p. 90. Italics and quotes from the original text.
The news that the Americans and their NATO allies are interested in trying to re-start the negotiations track in Afghanistan is rather disheartening if not disturbing in fact. It is not that one necessarily believes that a military victory over the Taliban is assured or better yet easily assured. No one in their right minds believes that. Unfortunately, that is not the issue here. The mind-set which argue for a 'negotiated solution' along the Iraqi model of 2007-2009, fails to understand certain rather concrete differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. The most important of which is that: i) the Taliban, which forms the majority of those seeking to overthrow the current government in Kabul, while not a 'government-in-exile', in the classical sense, is for all intents and purposes the military arm of the regime which ruled Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001. With some of the same individuals at its head. Most especially of course 'Mullah Omar'. And, whose ostensible goal is to restore the Taliban to power, id est., to return Afghanistan to conditions circa the summer of 2001. Whereas in the case of Iraq, the most potent opposition to the Americans and their local allies came from the Sunni Iraqi tribes, which while in the past were in a certain sense allied, informally with the Baathist regime, were not in any real sense an integral part of the same. Nor were they seeking per se to restore the Baathist regime circa 2002. Therefore, it was relatively easy in the context of the American 'surge' campaign in the 2007 and 2008 to pry apart the Sunni Arab opposition: moderates from extremists, opportunists from ideologues, provincial notables who do not care about national politics from those obsessed with restoring Sunni Arab rule in the entire country circa `a la 2002. Under these conditions, it was not that difficult to use the military pressure of the Americans in those two years, which in truth was not that horrendous nor particularly forceful to force the Sunni opposition to come to terms with the new regime in Baghdad and its American backers. It is of course another question entirely if this modus vivendi in Iraq will last. But, that is the subject of a future journal entry here. What is important to note is that the above set of circumstances does not really operate in Afghanistan. So for example, while Afghanistan also has tribes in plenty, they do not have the same force and cohesion that those of Iraq do. Therefore the strategy of endeavoring to treat the 'opposition' in Afghanistan (the Taliban and its supporters) as (to use Karl Marx’s metaphor) so many sacks of potatoes, does not really work. At least it will not work now. It might work in a few years time if the Americans and NATO were to pound The Taliban’s military arm and defeat it. What Clausewitz would call ‘breaking its will’. Not once, not twice but enough times So that it becomes evident that it will be impossible for the Taliban to win a military victory. Once that state of affairs comes to pass, then it might very well be possible for ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban or elements of the same, or better yet, ‘former elements’ of the Taliban, to result in something plausible. But, as the forever wise Anthony Cordesman clearly shows once again, in terms of events on the ground, we are very very far from anything like this at this point in time. And, it will take perhaps two, perhaps five years of continuing American / NATO military operations for something like this state of affairs to come about. If for no other reason than those already given, merely the fact that Afghanistan is a much, much, larger country than Iraq, and, the Pashtun elements of the population (the Taliban's natural base) much larger as a proportion of the population, than the Sunni are in Iraq. In short, the only type of negotiations which may work in Afghanistan now are of the ‘decent interval’ / Kissingerian sort of negotiations. Rien plus. To expect anything else is as a complete fantasy both militarily and politically. Not to speak of the positive harm that engaging in such talks so prematurely does to the morale of those elements both Afghan and non-Afghan who are fighting on our side. For which all one need do is read the commentary coming out of Pakistan where it is held as an article of faith that the Americans and their allies are merely playing for time, and, within a short interval (a 'decent interval' anyone?), both will be gone and the Taliban will be back in power in Kabul. Unless one is indeed looking for a collapse `a la 1975 in South Vietnam-style there is no positive point in engaging prematurely in pourparler now with the Taliban and other groups. Pur et simple.