David Miliband gave a big speech today, in which he said the Afghan government in Kabul needs to extend its outreach to Taliban militants to make way for “the first Afghan-led election since the 1970s.” Almost as if they were listening, the Afghan government then announced a cease-fire with the militants to create space before the election in Badghis province; within 24 hours, militants attacked and killed several police officers there.
The problem with all of this is it gets things backwards. Militants are fighting in Afghanistan for many reasons, but not one of them is planting bombs and shooting at NATO because he doesn’t have sufficient opportunities to vote. Catherine Philip explains:
David Miliband’s assertion that it is time to talk to the Taleban may sound new and shocking to some. It is neither.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British Ambassador to Kabul, advocated the policy soon after arriving in Afghanistan in 2004. British diplomats and commanders were carrying it out, albeit on a small scale, until the furious intervention of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President.
Hrm. Well, she’s referring to the disastrous “negotiation” spearheaded by Michael Semple, in which the British would withdraw from Musa Qala in Helmand province in exchange for a Taliban pinky-swear not to occupy it in their absence. After eleven months of Taliban domination, the British had to rely on American support to retake the district center. When Karzai saw Semple arranging unilateral negotiations with various Taliban leaders, he declared Semple persona non grata… as any head of state would do with a supercilious Eurocrat meddling in his country’s affairs without his permission. Well, let’s give Ms. Philips another chance:
The difference this time is that Washington — and to some degree, Kabul — have at long last come over to the view that the war cannot be won without talking to at least some of the enemy… The difficulties lie in the details. Who does the talking? The Taleban negotiators come from the more moderate wing of the Government that was deposed in 2001. Most are barely involved in the insurgency.
Ms. Philips is writing solidly in the mainstream of Western discourse on Afghanistan. She could be channeling David Kilcullen or Andrew Exum, for all I know. The problem is, that process is precisely backward. The trick isn’t making sure you are speaking to the right guys, it’s making sure the time is right for speaking at all.
Right now, the U.S. has spent at least the last three years watching slow degradations of all its success stories. Despite years of effort and expert-proclaimed successes, Kunar remains more violent and disconnected from the government than ever. This is the third time in three years NATO has launched the same operation in Helmand, to no effect save declarations of victory. Seven and a half years after removing the Taliban, villagers go to them for protection from thieving and child-raping police.
So my question to all the people talking about talking is the only way to end this war: If you were a Taliban commander… would you compromise all the progress you’re been making to sit down for talks with the government? All they hear is “we’re winning,” which is an anti-reason to negotiate.