The most common response to my public about-face and decision to sign onto a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan is “how will you accomplish this?” It is a perfectly fair, reasonable question I hope Alex Strick van Linschoten and Gilles Dorronsoro, the two main drivers of the Call to Reason, answer some day soon.
I have my own answer, as well. Before General Petraeus took over the war, recall that the major story Generals McChrystal and Flynn—the commander and chief intelligence officer in Afghanistan, respectively—were telling writers like Robert Kaplan was that they were facing a “kinder, gentler Taliban.” What they meant was: Mullah Omar was behaving in many ways as if he was concerned with his own legitimacy. They also consider Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaludin Haqqani to be “absolutely salvageable.”
At the time—which was this past March, only nine months ago or so—I mocked the idea of incorporating them into any kind of reconciliation. Partly, this was because the good generals did not display a very firm grasp of who and what these groups actually were. MG Flynn, for example, seemed unable to distinguish between Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin, the insurgent group with an egotist leader desperate for relevance, and Hezb-i Islami, the mostly-legitimate political party that feeds candidates into the Afghan parliament (they are most certainly not the same). Similarly, I mocked the idea that the Haqqanis were really getting tired of fighting and were ready to negotiate, precisely because they operated so effectively and so lucratively in the east. It was something they just said, with no evidence or reason to believe them.
I remain firmly convinced, too, that getting into a punching contest with the Haqqanis will eventually result in a loss for Team America. It isn’t that the U.S. military will be defeated per se, it’s just that the Haqqanis have proven far more stubborn and willing to absorb steep losses. In any medium-run, it simply does not favor the U.S.
So it with this context in mind that we ponder a pair of stories, appearing on consecutive days, in the New York Times. In a very real way, they cancel each other out—one painting a dour portrait of a Haqqani Network dug in and quite impossible to rout, the other a happy if wary picture of a Haqqani Network thrown back on its heels by a relentless campaign of raids and government assassinations.
The key here is probably geography: the pessimistic piece is speaking specifically about the provinces where the Haqqanis are strongest: the Loya Paktia region centered on Khost with adjacent areas of control in Ghazni, Logar, Wardak, and pockets of Kabul province. The optimistic piece seems based entirely around a single, kind of unique statistic: that the Haqqanis have been unable to launch a spectacular attack in Kabul in seven months (which is kind of misleading anyway: the article lists the bombing at the Serena Hotel in January of 2008, the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that summer, and then skips 18 months to the bombing at FOB Chapman in Khost province, all as evidence of the trend).
Anyway, the point in all this context is to discuss what this means for negotiations. Just so we’re clear: I am not optimistic negotiations will really work. If forced at gunpoint, I’d say there is between a 40% and 50% chance the talks will succeed in the next five years. But as I said before, those same talks are also our best option: the current COIN strategy is both unsustainable and, in my view, providing the illusion of progress. I remain firmly opposed to total withdrawal for hopefully obvious reasons, and have placed my hat firmly in the “management” camp, rather than the “victory” camp. Negotiations is a key pillar of the management regime—if they succeed, then there is something to manage toward; if they fail, then we remain in a holding pattern to then contemplate either re-escalation or steeper withdrawal.
The inescapable fact that should pervade all of this is that the U.S. has never tried. Hamid Karzai has a long, sad history of failed attempts to negotiate with the insurgency (and the one example of the U.S. participating, which I detailed at that link, turned out to be a humiliating disaster). One of the reasons behind this is, if Karzai negotiates something—even ignoring the looming disaster of a Rabbani-led Peace Council—but the U.S., and Pakistan do not sign off on it, then that agreement will mean nothing. The Taliban know this, and the common understanding that the talks so far have been more ritual than substance perhaps explains their persistent record of failure.
So the U.S. can and should and must participate in the negotiations process moving forward. That will obviously require at least one gesture of good faith on both parties, even before the messy discussions about fault lines, compromise areas, and inflexible demands (which all sides will clearly have and must work through). This is where the muddled picture of the Haqqani Network presents an opportunity: we now have a test case we can work with, and attempt to ascertain the prospects of a wider-scale negotiations process succeeding.
Let me explain. The pessimistic NYT piece details, at great length, the efforts of the Haqqani Network to co-opt the school system and operate a shadow government. The optimistic NYT piece on the Haqqanis ends with this paragraph:
And this puts the United States in direct competition with the Haqqanis. “The Haqqani network’s goal remains territory,” said a third NATO official in Kabul. “While it does not have the capacity to unseat the government in Kabul, nor to really govern, it wants to seize territory because that allows it to generate income ‘Mafia-like.’ ”
What both pieces indicate is that there is sufficient formal structure to the Haqqani Network’s activity in eastern Afghanistan to present carrots and sticks at the negotiating table. If, say, the shadow government is legitimized in some way—if the shadow governor is allowed to run the district, but only on the condition he accept an Afghan police presence. This is but one example, but it is actually tremendous news: pretensions to legitimacy mean that legitimacy is up for bargaining, which means the government—and ISAF—have something to work with.
At the same time, there is a widespread belief that the Haqqanis are, in essence, a mafia-like organization: they exist primarily to make money, so the argument goes, so they seek to control territory and disrupt government control to better make money. This too, should challenge how we frame the group: if they are a mafia-like group, then they pose far less of a long-term problem than the Quetta/Karachi shura Taliban, who have a clear political agenda aimed at Kabul.
So, if the Haqqanis are a mafia seeking only local control, and local space to operate their businesses… why not see what happens if we give them that? Let’s test the proposition. The “bad man” argument against doing so—we cannot cooperate with the Haqqanis because they are bad people—doesn’t really apply, not while Marshall Fahim is a Vice President and Berhanuddin Rabbani, of all people, is heading the Peace Council. We have an opportunity, right now, to use the fluid conditions in southeastern Afghanistan to try and begin the process of negotiations to end th worst of the fighting.
It might not work. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say it probably won’t work, since there remain precious few upsides I can really envision ISAF allowing the Haqqanis to get from the talks process. That obviously needs to change as a part of the reconciliation process. But now is the time to try. Not 2011, not 2014. Right now. Negotiations take a long time—sometimes decades. The sooner we can start them the sooner we can end the fighting. And that means the sooner we can go home.