Dispatches from FOBistan: The Persuadable Taliban

by Joshua Foust on 3/6/2009 · 1 comment

The Tagab Valley, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — One of the most stupefying encounters I’ve had these past six weeks amongst the fobbits centered, quite naturally enough, around the Taliban. I was out in a village, talking to people from an area (what, you think I’ll name names here?), and one old man told us that he knows a local commander who would like to “reconcile.” I am instinctively suspicious of a militia commander who would like to lay down his weapons and join the government, but it can happen. In this case, my sense was that he was either tired of fighting and wanted to do good, which is the story this man told me, or he saw dollar signs at the prospect of being a government official, which seems more likely.

Either way, he’s not actively joining the insurgency. Corrupt officials can be tweaked into being less corrupt—I would argue that is a lower-order problem than someone actively planting bombs, or actively involved in the bomb-planting chain. So I approached the local American unit (what, you think I’ll name names here?) and told them that this figure would like to discuss reconciliation. “I dunno how to do that,” one said to me. He pointed me to his superior. He didn’t know, either. We handed them the man’s phone number, and hoped that they would find a way to handle the situation, somehow.

On a national level, I maintain my stance that even attempting reconciliation is in a major way admitting defeat. All the COIN theory aside, specifically with the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar and Hekmatyar, “negotiations” are victory, as it proves they have a legitimate grievance against the government and the U.S. Historically, back to 2002 and before, negotiations have strengthened them rather than the opposite. Even more importantly, each failed attempt at negotiation—Hamid Karzai has many at this point—serves to undermine the legitimacy of a government unable to maintain control.

However, there are some—generally local fighters and commanders, almost always tightly geographically tied to a single area or valley—who most certainly can be persuaded to lay down their weapons, or at least to point them someplace else. These are the men we should be targeting with reconciliation initiatives… not the national crazies who are gaining momentum and have too much to lose.

It is in that spirit that I read this Captain’s Journal post about the “Good” Taliban:

In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes. We must address the situation holistically, but we must be careful with whom we negotiate and who we pay – and with whom we fight.

It is estimated that there are on the order of 20,000 hard core Taliban fighters alone in Helmand, and more in the balance of Afghanistan. The Captain’s Journal seriously doubts that we can align any of these elements with the U.S. on a long term basis.

The indigenous poor are a different story. This may be the doorway we are looking for.

Herschel and I part on ways on how many “hard core Taliban” there really are here, but he and I are in lockstep that there is a very huge difference between the crazies and the persuadablea. The persuadables should be persuaded with all we can get, and the crazies should not be wined and dined by a Hamid Karzai desperately seeking re-election. Antonio Giustozzi discussed this quite well in Koran, Kalashnikov & Laptop (review here).

The challenge in that, however, is two-fold: learning to tell them apart, and actually doing it once you have. We can kind of sort of tell them apart by learning the people—remember that bit about “intimate knowledge?” It really matters a lot that you intuitively understand how and why people think the way they do, and as importantly how you can create trigger points and play off known biases to achieve a desired outcome. I don’t want to get all PSYOP-y or IO-y on people here, but this step matters a lot. Even more importantly than reliably telling crazies and persuadables apart, however, is that we have no idea how to go about reconciling once someone offers. I’ve met enough people who complain about being placed on targetting lists when they approach the Coalition for things—and not always (or even often) for reconciliation—to have almost no confidence in our ability to handle negotiations in a locally-trustworthy way. We have burned a lot of bridges, in other words. But just as badly: when someone does offer, the people in front, those precious 7% of the soldiers who actually go outside the wire, have no idea what to do with such information. A process certainly does exist, since everyone talks about it like it’s established policy. But no one seems to know how to start it.

Having no idea how to identify persuadable “Taliban” and having no idea how to begin the reconciliation process once they do is only the start of the challenge in Afghanistan. As has become the overriding theme of these dispatches, the problem is us, not Afghanistan. The U.S. military has some serious institutional and organizational problems to overcome before it can consider itself an effective instrument in this war. Until that happens, that strange foreboding sense that we’re on the verge of catastrophic failure grows stronger every single day I see, for example, new signs being erected warning children—in English, natch—not to play in construction zones. “Getting it” is actually relatively straightforward; we just don’t seem to care enough to get it

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

David M March 9, 2009 at 9:25 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/09/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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