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January 28, 2012

Talks About Talks … Headed Where, Exactly?

by Mike M

Not to be dismal, and acknowledging that hard-working folks are chipping away at the problem, but the broader questions about America’s strategic direction in Afghanistan just won’t go away.

So the Taliban announced their intention to open a Qatar office.  US officials avoided questions about whether US diplomats have already met with them, but if it quacks like a prelude-to-talks meeting and it walks like a …

The optimistic interpretation of this whole trend of events runs as follows:  The “surge” is working.  We are slamming them, and they are getting tired.  The Taliban figure, let’s join the government, work toward political power, stop getting slaughtered in these night raids.  Meantime we’re piling on the ANSF power and building a lasting fighting force.  Yet there are so many reasons to doubt that simple, hopeful line of thinking:

  1. We’re set to be out, mainly, within a couple of years.  These guys have been at war for decades.  You mean to say they can’t hang on another twenty-four months, knowing that the pressure is going to start to ease this year if they can just wait?
  2. History and common sense tells us to expect the Taliban to use the promise of negotiations as a tool of strategy to gain concessions, draw out any political process, generally weaken US resolve, confuse the Afghan government and drive wedges between Washington and Kabul.
  3. They still have their safe havens.  If things are really super-hot they can just waltz across to Pakistan and wait—at least the seniormost guys.
  4. Indeed, the best thinking always was that authentic Taliban participation in a peace process would come as the product of close coordination with Pakistan.  Pakistan is in fact hugely pissed off at us right now and presumably in little mood to end the war on our terms.  This would appear to make it an unlikely moment for Islamabad to use their best offices to try to flip the switch and send the Taliban into the political realm.
  5. There is no “Taliban” per se to make peace with.  It’s a huge kaleidoscope of organizations.  There cannot be a simple “join the political process” moment.
  6. Public reports claim that the new National Intelligence Estimate is not optimistic about the political basis for victory.  If the Taliban know that, why would they suddenly sue for peace?

The foundation for peace talks would therefore appear rather shaky.  But suppose they do begin to gather momentum.  What do we assume about the process from that point?  About the relationships between Northern Alliance-affiliated dudes and those who want to come back in from the cold?  (These things did not go well in 2001, which is partly why some of the Taliban skipped town in the first place.)  How does all this relate to the swirling patterns of Afghan society and politics?  Do we care?

Of course practitioner types will turn the back of a hand to all this and say, “You can’t predict any of that.  We just have to work it, day to day.”  True enough, to a point.  But if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will get you there.  We’ve been driving on just about any road we could find in Afghanistan for too damned long; after a decade, clever improvisation underneath the most general and ill-defined of broad principles ought perhaps have been expected to give way to something else by now.

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