Wednesday, October 29, 2008

May I Have Your Autograph, Please, Mr. Taliban?

The next thing you know they'll be on The View or maybe even Oprah.

Pakistan is talking to them, so is Afghanistan. The Saudis are always up for a chat with them. The Brits have exchanged pleasantries. Canada thinks it's not a bad idea that someone talks with them and now even the Americans are toying with the idea of having them over for tea.

The Terrors of the Khyber Pass are the most popular bunch in town these days. Everybody wants to make nice. But wait, these are the insurgents, the bad guys, the widowmakers of Kandahar. Aren't we supposed to be talking to them across open sights?

Welcome to the era of "if you can't beat'em, try something, anything else." Everybody is trying to find some deal sweet enough that even an Islamist fundamentalist can't refuse.

Imagine what it must be like to be a Taliban leader these days. You have to decide which invitations you're going to accept (presumably the ones with the best swag), what to wear, what hat goes with which shoes - these are tough things for a jihadi mountain man.

Now the trick is to always negotiate from a position of strength. Oh, that might be a problem for our side. You can't find an American or NATO general these days willing to say we can beat them. They used to say that - a lot - they said it for years - and years - but no more, sigh. Now that they've decided it's better for their careers to change course, it's no longer just a military problem, no, no, no. Now it's a political problem. In fact you just might notice that, when it comes to sitting down with these guys, there's not a general to be seen from our side. No, that would be rude.

So, if you're going to sell a deal, you have to have a deal to sell. We know they're not bringing any deals to us. We're the offeror, they're the offeree. What have we got that they want? What do they want? What do they have that we want?

It's obvious that we'd be happy if they stopped blowing up our convoys and shooting at people. We want them to "stop." To make sure they don't start again, we'd like them to integrate into the political structure of Afghanistan and of Pakistan. It would help no end if there was a viable political structure in either Afghanistan or Pakistan but you have to play the cards you're dealt. I mean, let's be realistic. What would you pay for a piece of the action at Hamid Karzai's table? Probably even less than it's worth and that's hard to do when it's worthless.

Reality sets in. We know we're not going to land any sweetheart deals with the Taliban so we'll leave that futile chinwag up to the Afghan, Pakistani and Saudi governments. What we want is to focus on the supposedly less-extreme parts of the Taliban, persuade them to defect. We'll set them up on Easy Street and that will lure even more to come over. This way we'll hollow out the insurgency.

It sounds like a plan - a very, very bad plan. To begin with, you never, ever let the other side know they've got the upper hand. You don't let on that they're winning. Well, that horse is already out of the barn. If we can't control the insurgency - and we can't - we can't protect defectors, or their families, from retribution. The Taliban doesn't get its support from playing nice, we know that. Given that the insurgents have already infiltrated the government and the police and the army, where's a defector to hide?

"Too many cooks." The Saudis and Afghans and Pakistanis are talking with the Taliban Head Office boys. If we Infidels start messing about with the Branch Office types, how well do you think that's going to go down with the Taliban board of directors?

The Talibs have always said they would negotiate but only after US and NATO forces leave. Do we have some reason to believe they're bluffing, that they'll settle for less? If we don't, we're in an "A" or "B" situation and if we can't break that, we'll eventually have to accept it. We've pretty much known that all along. That's the whole idea about establishing a strong, central government supported by a well-trained, well-equipped army. Now, if we were succeeding on the government thing and the army thing, we wouldn't be talking about negotiations, would we? Of course not. We'd have them sew on their brigade patches, hand them the keys to the armoury and di di mau right out of there. Oops, sorry for the Vietnam reference.

No, my take on all these negotiations is that they're a tacit admission of defeat, even fear. We haven't done what we said we'd do when we went in there seven years ago. We haven't even held the line. We haven't succeeded on a single front over there, not one. Now we're in a dilemma. The Taliban are not only resurgent in Afghanistan, able to operate pretty much as they chose wherever they chose, but they're also destabilizing our key ally next door, Pakistan. And we don't have anything in our fabulous, state-of-the-art bag of tricks to make it go away.

What would success from these negotiations look like? I figure if we could somehow get the Taliban to sever ties with al-Qaeda, that would be victory beyond what we deserve. We've spent the last seven years driving them into the arms of al-Qaeda so undoing what we've wrought would be a Herculean task. Still, al-Qaeda is an Arab outfit. It's not Pashtun or Hazara or Uzbek or Tajik or Turkmen or Kurd or any of the other ethnic players in the region. They're foreigners in a land that doesn't particularly like foreigners. That may be enough to tip the scales.

Getting out of Afghanistan isn't going to be pretty, no matter how these talks turn out.


WesternGrit said...

Or we could just divide Afghanistan into two parts. Let the Taliban have their region, have Karzai have his area, and have UN peacekeepers in-between, for a few years, until the Karzai regime can stabilize without any war going on... You can't expect a regime to stabilize during a war. Especially a new government founded on very weak backing.

WesternGrit said...

In a few decades the two countries will simply re-unite anyways - as is the way in this part of the world. The more educated, more cosmopolitan Karzai-controlled region would far exceed the Taliban's economic success, and the Taliban would be unable to maintain a "nation". We would be able to enforce strict sanctions against the Taliban - without hurting any other part of the population...

WesternGrit said...

Sorry, I meant "in the modern world", not "in this part of the world"...

The Mound of Sound said...

Unfortunately WG it doesn't work that way. Kabul isn't going to survive under Karzai, not when other warlords like Dostum can kidnap people there and defy the police service in armed standoffs. We don't hear about the anarchic goings on in that city.

To hand the Pashtun their territory would mean giving them not just Karzai's homeland but also the tract of Pakistan that separates Islamabad from the oil and gas riches of Baluchistan.

It's wheels spinning within wheels.

Even Kabul depends on the opium trade for its prosperity and that means control of the countryside which is increasingly falling to the insurgency. There's nothing in Kabul to keep it afloat as some sort of garrison.

The non-Pashtun warlords are now picking sides - some are weighing joining the insurgency while others are reforming their militias in contemplation of a resumption of the unresolved civil war.

We never went in to win. When Hillier talked the feds into the Kandahar gig he should have mustered a force of at least 25,000 for that one province alone. The whole country required at least 300-400,000 combat soldiers. I'm not pulling these numbers out of the air. They're based on the ratios set out in the US military's new counterinsurgency field manual (written under the direction of Petraeus himself), FM 3-24.
That treatise states that you shouldn't even dream of going into a place like Afghanistan unless you can field one counterinsurgent for every 25-50 civilians. Do the math. Just over 30-million Afghans. Even if you go to the low end, 1:50, that's a force of 600,000 soldiers.
We've been running this war on the cheap and now we're hitting the wall.