Image for Afghanistan: new US policy favours reconciliation

In an earlier paper ( HERE )it was suggested that US policy on Afghanistan had recently undergone a major change. Before looking at the evidence for this, and its implications, it is worth restating the official case. Australia, the US and UK insist that national security requires intervention. The threat is that the Taliban, if they are not defeated or prevented from winning, will open the door to al Qaeda, and thus increase the danger of terrorist attacks in the West. As Defence Minister John Faulkner warned in a July speech, this risk is ‘absolutely critical;’ it will open up ‘a training ground and operations base’ for global terrorism.

The fact that this threat no longer governs American thinking is not so surprising. Looking back, it was arguably inevitable from the time President Obama took office and reaffirmed his campaign’s most important foreign policy goal viz. to bring US troops home as soon as possible, beginning in July 2011. At the time he stressed that, as in Iraq, he would ‘execute the transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground’. That goal has forced a fresh look at the claim that the war is about global terror, rather than a struggle for the future of Afghanistan.

What ‘execute responsibly’ means is unclear, and some in the US media see differences over it as responsible for the sacking of the previous US Commander. But despite regular assurances of progress in the major goal to train Afghan Army troops to replace the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in July 2010 the US Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that only 23% of army and 12% of police units can function independently and that one-third of the army is AWOL on an annual basis. It helps explain why, after nine years, experts such as ANU Professor Hugh White, a leading Australian defence strategist, believe this aim is unrealistic.

The other major goal in US strategy is the ‘surge’, a temporary boost of allied forces up to 150,000 troops, with large-scale operations in critical provinces, to weaken insurgents and demonstrate ISAF’s ability to wrest control from the Taliban. This goal attracts the same skepticism, much of it from conflicting accounts of the widely heralded operation in Marjah province in February. One prominent critic is Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian, and author of a 2006 book on the Vietnam War. His analysis of US foreign policy often features in the Asia Times.

In a recent study, Porter finds US claims of success contradicted by a survey from the London-based International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) showing that the population of Marjah still regarded the Taliban as being in control of the district five months after US troops began occupying it (Inter Press Service, 30 August). The same question will arise after the major offensive being planned for Kandahar, long-postponed and now due to begin in the US fall. Many pundits see this as the acid test. While the above two goals are still being pursued, it is clear the US now concedes that it may be impossible to reconcile early withdrawal with security for Kabul.

Other US policy assumptions are currently being challenged across the board. In July the prestigious US Council on Foreign Relations published a study by Matt Waldman, an independent expert on insurgency and reconciliation. His interviews with Taliban leaders and soldiers have impressed David Kilcullen, an Australian counterintelligence expert close to General Petraeus (in recent testimony to a US Senate Committee, he advised members to read a study by Waldman on current Pakistan army support for the insurgents).

Waldman argues that the prospects for success in negotiations are being undermined by a failure to understand the reasons why young Afghan men are being drawn to the insurgency. In his view these have less to do with religion or politics than with lack of jobs, official corruption and the excesses of a foreign army. He does not rule out religious zeal, but argues for more realism. He thinks talks should begin now and that the preconditions set by Western powers ‘are overambitious and unrealistic. They are effectively asking for surrender, and (this) is not reconciliation.’

The US and UK have agreed for some time that any lasting solution requires a political settlement. But for the US this has meant ‘reintegration’ of Taliban soldiers who would give up weapons, renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution in return for jobs. But it has ruled out ‘reconciliation’ talks with Taliban leaders, because of their al-Qaeda links. This ignores the degree of support provoked by a corrupt government and an occupying army; it ignores the evidence that these leaders command the willing allegiance of their forces, perhaps more so than the Afghan Army.

The policy is widely reported as a source of tension with President Karzai, who seeks talks with Taliban chiefs, including leader Mullah Omar, while the US has insisted on more time to convince the Taliban they cannot win. This is surely the nerve of the problem, since no one can know what is possible until talks begin. Given the ethnic and tribal divisions, there may well be a regional solution, with Taliban autonomy in Pashtun areas, perhaps as a transitional phase. At present both sides have set preconditions likely to reflect ambit claims: the US wants the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution, while the Taliban want ISAF forces to leave, and direct talks with the US.

Despite this impasse, on June 27 General Sir David Richards, the new British Defence chief and former head of NATO forces, expressed his ‘private view’ that talks with the Taliban should begin ‘pretty soon’. Three weeks later the UK Guardian reported on a major US ‘change of mindset’; it cited ‘senior Washington’ officials explaining that the US would henceforth encourage Karzai to pursue talks, presumably discreetly through third parties. This change of policy, a major compromise of the original war aims, began to emerge over the coming weeks.

On August 18 the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UAMA) cited a Kabul news report that General Petraeus, the new US Commander, had recently visited a well-known former Taliban Minister and ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, for advice on talks with the insurgents. Zaeef, who fought the Soviets as a Mujahideen and wrote a widely reviewed book, My Life with the Taliban, had been imprisoned for three years, mostly in Guantanamo, until released without charge in 2005. He advocates a government of national unity and argues that the presence of foreign troops erodes the authority of the Afghan government. He reportedly advised Petraeus that the Taliban should have status as a political party, and that Afghans should now take the lead in all political and military affairs.

At about the same time Petraeus, in a widely reported interview with NBC, endorsed talks with some Taliban leaders - without naming names - but perhaps including other regional factions, such as the Haqqani and Hekmatyar forces. He announced that a new policy on reconciliation was ‘fairly imminent’, noting that concern over al-Qaeda’s return if the Taliban were to reclaim power was part of the reconciliation debate. Citing his experience in Iraq, he admitted that the US would have to ‘sit down across the table with people who have our blood on their hands’. He added ‘this doesn’t mean that … Mullah Omar is about to stroll down main street in Kabul anytime soon and raise his hand and swear an oath on the constitution of Afghanistan’; but it seems clear he was moving to narrow the gap with Karzai.

Gareth Porter, writing in the Asia Times, forecast this change of policy in December, when he reported on Taliban offers to provide ‘legal guarantees’ that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks. He saw the offers, made through an international press agency, as clear overtures to talks. At the time they were ignored by the US and most of the media. But President Karzai has now announced peace talks with Taliban leaders, which would not be possible without this US policy change. The US will presumably expect him to insist on an elected government and basic political rights, including freedom of religion and emancipation of women.

All this may be a pipedream. Shazia Shakib, a teacher in Kabul who works for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and whose views were reported in this journal on 24 August, believes that a renewed civil war ‘could erupt between the Islamic Fundamentalist Taliban and the Northern Alliance, made up of warlords and drug chieftans.’ But she still thinks this is better than occupation by foreign powers, with increasing alienation of the people from any democratic possibility. Democracy, in her view, could yet emerge from the ashes of a civil war.

The previous US policy, in rejecting President Karzai’s call for reconciliation, treated him as the head of a puppet regime, a repeat of the Soviet experience; but whatever his faults he has some right to speak for the Afghan people. If negotiations are the only alternative to Shakib’s bleak vision, the West must pursue them. But it should also be clear to all that, if peace talks with the Taliban leaders are now on the table, we are not fighting in Afghanistan to save us from global terror. As Andrew Wilkie forcefully argues, that claim is indefensible. What Australia now needs is a formal review of the war policy and a parliamentary system better designed to avoid such mistakes in future.

Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in legal theory and and international law.