A Call to Reason for Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 12/13/2010 · 10 comments

Let us rehash, briefly: about two years ago, before any of the Obama troop surges flowed into Afghanistan, there was a growing caucus of progressives urging against it. I disagreed with them, for very specific, narrow reasons (I described it as being “marginally anti-non-escalation”).

Leaving aside the many reasons the Afghanistan mission remains a good one, “escalation,” or increasing troop levels to an appropriate, rather than the currently inadequate, level, is riddled with problems. It must accompany a shift in U.S. policy, away from the snag-and-bag night raids that turn far more people against us than it nabs terrorists. It must accompany a radical departure from the FOB mentality and involve dispersing units into the countryside and into the community. And it must accompany a radical departure from the utterly failed counternarcotics campaigns of the last 7 years.

I support the idea of adding more troops to the mix. But only if they’re used properly.

Needless to say, that has not happened, and in many ways my worst fears—the military doubling down on bad strategy in support of assumptions instead of outcome—have largely come true. Indeed, I would describe the current leadership of ISAF as crippled by delusions, especially judging by their pre-reaction to the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan (the Pentagon doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge that intelligence analysis is only as good as the data going into the analysis—and as the military’s own top intelligence officers have said, they produce lousy data). The war is going badly, and literally the only people desperate to cling to optimism about it are the military.

As a case in point, Rajiv Chandrasekaran ran a fascinating piece about how they’re trying to pull lessons from unrepeatable coincidences of good luck:

It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly. But five visits by this reporter since July 2009 suggest that the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.

Indeed, Nawa, Helmand represents what might be possible if you flood a small area of 90,000 people with a huge number of troops, hundreds of millions of dollars, and cooperative and functional government officials. In other words, it is almost completely unworkable anywhere else in the country. But rather than seeing the unique conditions of Nawa as something to marvel at, Rajiv reports that General Petraeus sees it as a model for the rest of the country:

He points to major security improvements in and around Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, because of operations conducted by newly arrived U.S. soldiers. He notes that secret missions by Special Operations Forces over the past six months have resulted in the death or capture of hundreds of mid-level Taliban leaders, resulting in growing demoralization among insurgent commanders. And he expresses optimism about a new 20,000-man village defense program that is expanding law enforcement into areas the police do not patrol.

I must have missed these major security improvements. 2010 has been, predictably, the most violent yet. Hundreds of Kandahari families have been displaced by the fighting. And just this morning, six U.S. and two Afghan troops died from a bomb planted at their new base, in Petraeus’ security bubble around Kandahar. Killing off the mid-level leadership has fractured the Taliban, making them more radical and less wiling to consider negotiation (literally, they’ve learned the lesson that making themselves known, even if for talks with the government, is a death sentence), and the village-defense program is riddled with problems and rife with complaints of abuse, harassment, and corruption.

Meanwhile, Secretary Gates says that now the military has finally “reversed the Taliban’s momentum.” This clashes with the DOD’s own reporting on the war (pdf), which says that ISAF has achieved some progress, but its efforts to “reduce insurgent capacity, like reducing safe havens or attack capabilities, “have not produced measurable results.” Last year, ISAF decided to concentrate its efforts into a hundred or so “key terrain districts.” As Rajiv points out in the story above, “Not only have most of those places not improved, but Taliban activity, once concentrated in the south and east, has metastasized to northern and western parts of the country.”

Yet still, we are take Petraeus’ and Gates’ word that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, things are going well.

So it is into this environment that I more or less reverse myself and call for negotiations with the Taliban. Last July (and well into 2008), I had tried to argue that pushing for negotiations first was backwards, as I felt the Taliban’s momentum had to be reversed first. I was disdainful that the talks would mean anything, because I thought the conditions didn’t make any sense—it was too up in the air. I’m ashamed to realize that, in fact, every single mention of negotiations by Petraeus or even Holbrooke was an outright lie: they were not interested in negotiations per se, but rather abject surrender.

That is no basis for negotiations, or for having any kind of discussion. Which is why I have added my name to an open letter of scholars, journalists, NGO workers, and other related parties calling on President Obama to open a negotiations process in earnest. At this point, where almost all options—assassinating key- and mid-level leadership, COIN, reduced footprint, and so on—have been tried, I’m at a loss for what is left. It is far too late into the game to put into place my preferred option of small units of 8-10 troops in villages and strategic areas (the LDI program comes close, but it’s too incoherent, and too reliant on the Special Forces, to have any strategic effect at this point).

Really, the only option left is to offer a negotiations process. It might not work, and I am honest enough to say so that I have serious doubts about the initiatives I have heard of. But at this point, it is simply irresponsible not to begin the talking process even if the fighting must continue. As Myra MacDonald noted earlier this year, the conditions are right for both parties to begin the negotiations process, despite the severe risk. This entire process will involve a very difficult, and humbling, discussion of what is worth compromising on, and what is not—including the ability of U.S. forces to reserve a capability to strike any al Qaeda forces that may operate from uncontrolled areas of Afghanistan. It won’t be easy, by any stretch.

But ten years in, it should shock all of us that the U.S. has never tried. I feel ashamed to have believed the U.S. leadership was honestly pushing for negotiations. I suppose it is ironic that such shame now drives my support for the very negotiations I opposed, but there is simply no other way out of this conflict for us. We cannot wait another Friedman Unit for things to change—as far too many blind militarists are demanding. Negotiations are the only reasonable choice left.

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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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TJM December 13, 2010 at 8:25 pm

What types of issues would be discussed in these negotiations? And how would that lead to an improvement in the situation?

Joshua Foust December 14, 2010 at 5:52 am

I think the most immediate issue is an end to the violence first, followed by the terms under which that end can be made permanent. No one expects to happen in anything less than years and years.

TJM December 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

That sounds like a reasonably conservative goal in a long period of time. I guess I was under the impression that this was being proposed as a means of finding a long-term solution to the competition between the GIRoA and Taliban.

Sekundar December 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Negotiations are not a black-and-white issue, I agree. But you describe them as a two-party affair, and I think they will not be. I assume you mean the Quetta Shura and the Karzai government… Where does that leave the other assorted malcontents like Haqqani and Hekmatyar? And what of the governmental flotsam like Dostum and Masood? And what role would the U.S. besides not actively opposing negotiation?

Sekundar December 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Meh, hit “post” too quick. So considering the number of interested parties and the level of buy-in that would be necessary, do you envision a new Bonn? And what is the benefit you expect the Taliban (QS) to see in this?

Joshua Foust December 14, 2010 at 5:55 am

The Taliban have felt losses in the war, too. I wouldn’t undersell the value of an end or even reduction in violence. I clash with other signatories to that list, like Gilles Doronosrro (we had a LONG conversation about it the other week) on the prospects of someone like Sirajuddin actually negotiating and abiding by it. But that isn’t a reason to try in good faith to make it happen anyway.

This isn’t about selling off the farm, so to speak. But so far, we’ve not made real efforts to do this, and it’s time to try.

Steve Magribi December 14, 2010 at 8:06 am


Another Take on This

Here is how others might perceive this. See above.

Pakistani Intelligencia in action.

Knowing Giles D’s take on this Joshua it is much more than “let’s hope for the best with doves flying over Paktia” This letter is right out of the ISI book of public relations and could have been written by them, by Giles, or a Taliban Front agency.

I give you all the credit in the world for explaining your history on this. It is hard to decide which way to go on something like this.

The war is not going well and ISAF is the epitome of incompetence, this year, last year, for ten years and probably next year too.

But I ask the same questions I would have asked the CNAS “team of decisive and strategic thinkers” -WHO and WHAT.

The first question is obvious. If we were STUPID enough to talk to Mullah Mansour, shopkeeper from Quetta exraordinaire, who are we going to talk to now?

A. Giles D knows? He loves the surrender, it excites him
B. We will figure it out as we go and we love talking to Shop Keepers and paying big bucks for the honour?
C. The people we need to talk to are dead via drone or we really wish they were?
D. We don’t even know who we are fighting?
E. QST, Siraj, LeT, whomever?
F. Negotiate just because we really need to, or because just because? With whomever just because?
G. Negotiate with the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban will go right along.
H. There is no war in Pakistan so we should just act like Afghanistan is all we care about anyway, and assume things are going to just get better? Or is the other way around?
and.finally….perhaps the best who…

I. Just ask the Pakistanis to produce us some “real live” Taliban to talk to since we can’t seem to find any ourselves to talk to.
Ask the Pakistani Intelligencia…they always know what is best for everyone in Afghanistan….

Then there is the WHAT..What are we negotiating for? Give them some provinces? Give them some aid money? Give them a one week vacation to Disneyland with Karl Eikenberry? Do any and all of these and the Taliban will just up and jump right along into the negotiation bin with us.

Are they hurting so bad they need to talk? Or perhaps they have more than sufficient new recruits, new supplies and new funds to keep this going forever thus not requiring a negotiation since they are already kicking butt per the Pakistani Intelligencia.

The letter also…seems to be missing the opinions of any Afghans…???? What do they think about Giles D and our unilateral talks with the Taliban? Were they asked? Or were the only opinions that were valid taken from Jihadis? (oh, I forgot, this is not a jihad, unless you are a Shaheed?)

Just something to think about…another view….perhaps?? The letter is a bit on the other extreme of the CNAS “Always Pull Out Responsibly” and not a good happy medium either…We just can’t seem to figure this thing out at all.

I would no more sign this letter than approve of Barnum and Bailey’s Exum Circus from CNAS.

Abdullah December 14, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Question J. How many months away before the imminent devaluation of the USD brings all the activity to a halt?
You thought this battle would be won with munitions, there is more than one way to divide and conquer, Keep the presses rolling, and watch the Whore burn.

carl December 15, 2010 at 12:48 am

If we were to push hard for talks at this point, we would essentially be going to the Pak Army/ISI/Taliban & Company with our hats in our hands asking them “Please Sir, will you…?” That is not the way to prevail in any kind of negotiation, especially when negotiating with adherents of a violent totalitarian ideology. I think we forget that by their nature, totalitarians don’t negotiate in the sense of giving a little to get a little. They negotiate as a tactic to get it all, especially when they feel they have the upper hand. If we were to do this, we and we alone, would be opening up another front against us, for considerable numbers of our own people would expect something to come from talks and they would expect it to come fast. In order to achieve that we would be the ones who would do all the giving, and forcing segments of the Afghan populace to give whether they wanted to or not.

I can understand your desire to try everything but this shouldn’t be tried, at least not until it isn’t “backwards”.

Apart from only pretending to have tried real small wars things as you mentioned, there is one other thing we haven’t tried. We have never seriously tried ending Pak Army/ISI support of Taliban & company. We haven’t even publicly stated they are doing so, nor have we cut off their military money, nor have we really developed the northern supply route to the point we can eliminate the Karachi route. Until we actually do those things or creditably threaten to do them, we haven’t tried everything. In my mind, until we do that, we haven’t tried the most important thing of all.

I request your opinion on something. Culturally, we Americans love machines and gadgets and we will try to invent one or use one to do things that can only be done by people; such as suggestions that you don’t have to go into a village to know what is happening. If you have a drone overhead all the time the drone drivers will know what is going on just by looking. I actually read that once.

Anyway, do you think SpecOps has sort of assumed the same hallowed place in American military culture, that we have placed the same blind faith in “operators” being able to do anything regardless of circumstance that we have in machines? I wonder about this when I see the “snag-and-bag night raids” go on and on despite people who know the area saying they don’t work and in fact harm. What do you think?

AG December 16, 2010 at 10:04 am

As a rhetorical move to make negotiations with the Taliban more palatable to the public, the letter works. (“I was an aid worker in Afghanistan between January 5 to January 10 1959–and I endorse this statement.”)

As someone has already pointed out, “the only solution is political negotiations” is a truism and well-worn cliche that can be uttered just about any conflict. A bit more substance would be appreciated since the rubber has to meet the road somewhere.

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