A Political Solution for a Political War

by Joshua Foust on 2/7/2011 · 2 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

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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{ 2 comments }

Don Anderson February 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm

“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.”

Not to be hard on Alex VS etc, but this statement is actually a bit off. Same old story ISAF and “Negotiate on your knees”-this viewpoint presents a shattering misunderstanding of Afghan family structure and awareness. But that is what you get after three years or five years of never knowing the country before.

Yes, there is a younger generation. Yes, new fighters will rise to take positions as ISAF does the illegitimate “Phoenix II.” Yes, the younger generation has a different viewpoint and a new invader to fight.

But they are Afghans. They respect and know family history, Afghan tradition, and what happened before. They are all taught as children to respect both the family lineage, history and honor the tradition of the Mujahadeen movement from the 1980s. They are not any more or less Afghan Nationalists and will oppose logically and bravely the ISAF and GoIA as forces of the occupier and infidel.

The features of this Jihad are not much different than the first Jihad that I and other promoted against the Soviet occupation before. The enemy has changed, ie. now we are the enemy but the roots of the ideology are exactly the same and will derive the same basis of support.

Taliban I and Taliban II are derived from the same ideological base, this is not just a “National Movement.” Never was, and never will be. Negotiation is not the answer, sadly.

We did not understand it then, and now make the same mistakes.

But this is not the key point.

On the Jihad and the ideology behind it, Alex VS and those on the Negotiate Now team are shockingly confused and shockingly naive.

They are being used essentially as pawns by the Taliban Political Movement to weaken further more the Afghan State and Army. It is not the “devil in the details” it is the “devil who manipulates the gullible” here.

“Negotiate now…is wrong.”

Alex…”negotiate now on your knees”…is wrong about this, and is using weak lack of knowledge, colored in a soft shade of rose on his glasses to misunderstand Afghans, the nature of the struggle and how the new Afghan State must reform and change to meet a threat that is both firmly rooted in Afghan culture, generation independent, and also now international in nature.

This new generation is exactly the same as the previous generation with a broader vision and one that reinforces the fact that for radical Islam, the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is the key feature followed by another victory in Pakistan and other nations.

It was not, and never was local, and nor are the QST or other organizational elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The rise of Taliban II is directly related to the weakness and incompetence of ISAF and how it marginalized and alienated the very Afghans it needed to develop the Nation.

Alex VS is wrong again and again. ISAF is wrong again and again. Different message same ignorance of Afghans and how to maneuver in this war. Not a good situation, both War Now and Negotiate Now on your Knees are lost in ignorance.

Old Blue February 9, 2011 at 11:30 pm

There are more people now than ever who realize that insurgency is politics turned violent. Yes, it is war as defined by the fact that it is lethal violence aimed at a political goal, but it is the point on the spectrum of human interactions where politics turns violent. There are more than a few who realize this. They have gained some influence in Afghanistan. Whether it is enough, or whether it is too little, too late remains to be seen.

The job of the counterinsurgent is to bring the conflict out of the realm of warfare and back into the realm of civil politics while preventing total insurgent victory. Bringing the insurgents into the political process, even with compromise (what Rand calls a “mixed outcome”), is acceptable; even desirable. But insurgents do not negotiate in good faith when they perceive themselves to be “winning.” The violent aspects of insurgency are merely enablers to the political goal of taking control; whether that is by seizing or by slowly strangling and out-governing the government. The real danger of the Afghan insurgency is the inability to provide effective governance on the part of GIRoA. This leaves a political vacuum and politics abhors a vacuum. The insurgent is uniquely positioned to provide competing governance to fill that vacuum… and it does. So very Mao.

Military successes by counterinsurgents have one goal; to provide time and space for governance to be established or strengthened. We seem to accept the idea that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency. Temporary degradation of the insurgent’s military capabilities must be followed up on by strengthening governance, or you will be back to square one when the insurgency regenerates… which it will if you haven’t resolved the underlying causes and conditions.

However, the unintended consequences of killing off the HVT’s and forcing a new generation of insurgent leadership up through the ranks goes to the discussion we had about second and third order effects. It is possible that these effects were considered and accepted, but it is also possible that they were not considered beforehand and what we are seeing is an unintended consequence. Unintended consequences are not a death trap; but they may bring on a reevaluation of the chosen actions.

The real fight is between those who truly believe that we can kill our way out of an insurgency and those who know that it is, truly, a political problem at its heart.

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