Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Keuhn have published a new report with Barnett Rubin’s shop at NYU (online Monday morning). It makes an argument you’ve seen me make here before:
In the last three years (2007-10) the Taliban have taken considerable care in their public statements to implicitly distance themselves from al-Qaeda, while offering clear indications of their disaffection with the foreign militants in private.
In short, this report is one step along the way of showing the political, pragmatic, and ideological reasons to think there is at least an opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban to achieve NATO’s goals in Afghanistan (which remain centered around some form of eliminating or denying al Qaeda access and safe haven). Put differently, reading the nature of the Taliban’s dispute with al Qaeda, one thought immediately leaps to mind: No troops in exchange for no al Qaeda is actually a pretty good bargain.
Of course, the devils are always in the details. The precise nature of what the Taliban would be willing to give up could scuttle any such arrangements, just as the American unwillingness to withdraw under most circumstances so as to avoid being seen as “losing” will prevent such a drastic trade in troops. However, if ASVL and FK’s research is as thorough as it seems—and without more language skills I really lack the ability to double check it any more—then at least one substantial pillar of American strategy has a real chance of being achieved, if it hasn’t already.
There are, of course, controversial parts of the report as well, in particular the part titled “An avoidable insurgency.” Here Alex and Felix lay out their argument that the Taliban re-emerged in 2003 partly from a lack of alternatives, as if their only choice was to restart the war immediately rather than allowing the still-nascent Afghan government to get its act together and be in a position to hold meaningful talks.
This is at best only partially true—they are right to point out the folly and arrogance of calling the Taliban a “spent force” not worthy of reintegration in 2002 (you can almost heard Don Rumsfeld’s sneer oozing through the paraphrasing). But the role that Pakistan played in fomenting, encouraging, and funding the rebirth of the Taliban is downplayed to a worrying degree; Pakistan only gets a line here and there in the discussion of where the Taliban’s outlook, support, and motivations come from. This is the report’s biggest weakness by far.
One other major issue with this report is that it isn’t structured to undermine arguments to the opposite—witness Carlotta Gall’s obligatory BRUUUUUUCE Riedel quote in her piece on it. I would assume this is because Alex and Felix are arguing a case, and not, for the most part, arguing against other cases. But it would have been nice to see a little more preemptive framing to undermine the inevitable follow up articles disputing everything at places like the Long War Journal. The bones for it are there, since Alex and Felix interviewed actual Afghans and actual Taliban, rather than the “senior intelligence officials” that clog most stories about militancy in this area. It’s just not fleshed out as much as it could be.
Lastly, this will cause a tiny bit of annoyed response from ISAF-boosters:
The campaign to target the mid and high-ranking leadership appears to be a key part of the U.S. strategy against the Taliban at the moment.19 Its impact has been felt. As the older generation decreases in size, the vacant positions and power vacuum are filled by two groups from younger generations: the clerics and bureaucrats involved in the Taliban’s government during the 1990s and an even younger set of commanders. These newer generations are potentially a more serious threat. With little or no memory of Afghan society prior to the Soviet war in the 1980s, this new generation of commanders is more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations, and therefore less pragmatic. It is not interested in negotiations or compromise with foreigners.
Sadly, this is precisely what ISAF wants to do. By fracturing the movement, by decapitating it or nearly doing so, ISAF leadership hopes to force the Taliban to relent to their demands. Alex and Felix’s concerns are very real, and they should be troubling, but they also implicitly highlight one of the fundamental flaws in ISAF’s strategy: it is not a political one. What little strategy there is is purely militaristic: focused on grabbing territory and killing baddies. The very conceit behind the HVT targeting campaign is a rejection of politics and compromise—and the idea that ISAF will have to give anything for the sake of peace.
Which is why, no matter how well argued the report, it just won’t change any minds. The issues of evil, of America deciding who is best for Afghanistan, and of long-term risk management are wrapped up in so many emotions simple logic won’t unravel them. Entire careers ride on the casual assumption that all Taliban are therefore al Qaeda; that all militancy in Afghanistan is the same. Soldiers and Marines who come back from the field know this is not the case—that most of the people they fight are locals fighting for local reasons. But that basic truth, that our own leadership is choosing to get the war fundamentally wrong, just isn’t filtering upward.