Talking with the Talibrand

The Afghan government is negotiating with someone over Afghanistan, but who are they really talking to?

Ian J Byrne

I was rather surprised last week by a breaking news alert I received from NYTimes.com: “Taliban Elite, Aided by NATO, Join Talks for Afghan Peace.” The article summed up that there are “extensive” talks with the “highest levels of the groupâÄôs leadership” about ending the war.

President Barack Obama, along with other officials in prominent national security positions, has said that the Taliban has the momentum in the war. There have been 599 NATO International Security Assistance Force casualties in 2010, making it the deadliest year for ISAF forces since the war began in 2001.

So why does the Taliban want to talk?

When the United States first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the mission was to topple the Taliban government providing sanctuary for al-Qaida. ThatâÄôs when the Taliban was an ideologically driven Islamic fundamentalist group that had ruled Afghanistan since 1996.

“Taliban is a vague term. I donâÄôt know who the Afghan government wants to make a deal with,” wrote Said Lotfullah Najafizada, an Afghan journalist based in Kabul, in an e-mail. “Taliban” has been relegated to a brand used by warlords looking to cash in on the “jihad against the United States and the West,” he said.

By Afghan standards, the Taliban offers a lucrative proposal. It gives warlords an opportunity to consolidate power with foreign funds and weapons. For the unemployed, the Taliban offers a starting wage higher than the Afghan army or police.

On the whole, the Taliban are a diverse group of people from different ethnic backgrounds who have different motivations for joining the cause. While the Taliban isnâÄôt as ideologically focused as it once was, its hardcore fundamentalist leadership still exists.

Mullah Omar âÄî the “Commander of the Faithful” during the TalibanâÄôs reign in Afghanistan and their current spiritual leader âÄî is believed to be living in Quetta, Pakistan. Funds, weapons and orders are directed from there to Taliban fighters on the ground in Afghanistan.

The U.S. believes Mullah Omar should not be involved in the talks whatsoever. I agree, as under his leadership, al-Qaida was able to plot the Sept. 11 attacks while on Afghan soil. However, would his death be productive in the grand scheme of things?

Without Omar and his inner circle, any peace deal would lead nowhere, said Najafizada. “NATO is reportedly facilitating the initial steps of the peace talks by bringing a few Taliban commanders [from Pakistan] to Kabul for discussions,” he said. “However, it is not clear whether they are the right people to talk to.”

Who are the right people to talk to? Throughout the war, the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan has experienced a brain drain, as commanders have been killed in fighting and air strikes. Sure, there are people who have stepped up to fill the voids, but how many can possibly have any authority close to that of Mullah Omar? Also, as stated before, not all Taliban fighters have ideological motivations; financial motives drive most to join. By targeting the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, can NATO create the right people to talk to?

There are two methods NATO can employ to do this: money and force. The U.S. has used money to entice peace on the battlefield with relative success. Take, for example, the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. Sunni insurgents in Iraq were paid to put down their arms and form security forces directed by local councils. This was a major factor in the quelling of the insurgency in Iraq in 2007.

The second method, force, is self-explanatory. Since June, the U.S. Air Force has dropped more than 2,000 bombs on Taliban forces, a 50 percent increase from last year. Despite the more intense bombing operations, there has not been a large increase in civilian causalities.

Also factor in the increase in drone strikes in Pakistan that has killed militants linked to al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban. I donâÄôt believe talks will lead to a peace deal in Afghanistan, but surely the stepped-up bombings have gotten the attention of some Taliban factions.

On Friday, the U.S. and Pakistan announced a $2 billion military aid package. In return for counterterrorism tools, Pakistan has pledged to expand operations in North Waziristan, where al-Qaida operates, and Baluchistan, where Quetta is located. The aid deal also grants the U.S. increased flexibility in carrying out Special Forces operations within PakistanâÄôs borders.

Is $2 billion a fair price? Not really. However, if U.S. forces can target, kill and capture senior Taliban leadership in Quetta and force negotiations with the major players in the insurgency to end the war in Afghanistan, it will pay dividends.

Paying Taliban fighters to stop fighting us and killing the irreconcilable factions of the Taliban leadership is not a rosy proposition, but the reality is this: our goals in Afghanistan, as laid out by President Obama, are complete. The U.S. has “disrupted, dismantled, and defeated” al-Qaida within Afghanistan. Al-Qaida is no longer in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has the responsibility to leave Afghanistan in a governable state. President ObamaâÄôs plan for Afghanistan calls for troop withdrawal beginning in July 2011. Between now and then, the U.S. should do all it can to create a brand of Taliban that will be a productive partner in negotiating a peace with the Afghan government.

 

Ian J Byrne welcomes comments at
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