A Political War, Being Fought Militarily

by Joshua Foust on 6/3/2011 · 52 comments

There is a political battle brewing in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with the United States. The elites of Afghan society are gathering supporters and squaring up on different sides of a major, divisive issue, based on a fundamental disagreement over negotiations with the Taliban.

The Afghan High Peace Council, an admittedly clownish attempt by Hamid Karzai to introduce some sort of reconciliation process for the Taliban, has taken to bragging that members of the Taliban are actively seeking a negotiated end to the war.Ghulam Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan’s education minister and a member of a peace council in charge of reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, tells the Washington Times that there are some efforts by the Taliban and even some al Qaeda members to “reach out” to the Peace Council to start some sort of talks. This could easily be bluster on the part of the Peace Council, but it matches with other stories over the last 18 months or so that there is interest in negotiations to end the war—an inherently political process.

Opposing the efforts of the AHPC, and senior U.S. policymakers like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a worrying new coalition set up by former foreign minister and presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and former intelligence minister Amrullah Saleh. The National Movement (or Besij-i Melli) held a huge rally in Kabul last month, where one of their major platforms was rejecting talks with the Taliban. Saleh has become kind of famous for his rabid hatred of the Taliban—repeating it in countless (and endless) interviews with PBS Frontline as demanding the carpet bombing of Pakistan, rejecting political means of ending the war, and—in my view at least—a petulant temper tantrum over having to give up his guns in 2002 while the Taliban didn’t. The National Movement is drawing inspiration, like every single other dissident group on Earth at the moment, from the “Arab Spring,” even though its goals and its political social context have nothing to do with the Middle East.

But here’s what’s worrying. Abdullah Abdullah remains the strident opponent to Hamid Karzai he’s been since losing the election (and despite the insane level of fraud, he most likely would have lost anyway). But these two men, Abdullah and Saleh, are drawing huge amounts of support amongst educated elites, mostly Tajiks. In a way, and Tahir Qadiry explains this well, they are mobilizing the Northern Alliance in opposition to an inclusive settlement that allows the Taliban to rejoin society. It is a truly nightmare scenario—an educated, fairly wealthy ethnic minority is organizing opposition to including an uneducated ethnic majority in the primary political process governing the country. This is dangerous, in other words—there’s no way of knowing how this revival of the Northern Alliance will play out, if it will revive militias and brutal thugs like Abdul Rashid Dostum or if it remains at the purely political level. But it has the potential to seriously undermine any hope of progress in the war.

The war in Afghanistan is, at a very fundamental level, political. The dispute growing between the High Peace Council and the National Movement is, at a very fundamental level, political. I’ve been harping on this for years, that many of the biggest problems we face in Afghanistan are neither military nor economic in nature, but political. The U.S. has never had real challenges on the battlefield—the Army and Marines are terrifyingly good at “clearing” areas. But the politics of what to do with those cleared areas has always mystified NATO and ISAF.

The Washington Post recently reported that the Marines have spent nearly $1.3 billion in the last 18 months in Marjeh, and there remains no political structure to assist with governance. Even in supposedly successful places like Nawa, also in Helmand, the Marines have shown a marked inability to understand and affect the political context of the areas they control—and they have been substantially more successful than the Army in doing this! But they’re stuck in a stilted mode of thinking that, once the guys with guns sweep through, they can lavish money upon an area and declare it successful.

This is not a war the Taliban are winning: from a political perspective they’re barely more functional than the Afghan government is. It is a war we are losing—by ignoring the politics of Afghanistan, of the basic political question driving the war (e.g. what will be the ultimate political system of Afghanistan), and the politics preventing Afghans and Taliban from sitting down to negotiate, we are sowing the seeds of failure.

Meanwhile, we’ll focus on building farms for farmers, as if Afghans who already farm need any help learning how to farm. We are choosing not to get it. The key question facing policymakers—how do you create the structures for a political process without dictating an outcome or working against our interests—is, sadly, left unasked and unanswered.

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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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Daniel Serwer June 3, 2011 at 11:42 am

Part of our problem is that we don’t have the people and tools to “get it.” We have willfully ignored the need for an expeditionary state-building capacity. Each president since the end of the Cold War has tried to duck the requirement. And this one has never dared utter a word about the end-state for governance in Afghanistan. You can’t get there if you don’t know where you are going.

Daniel Serwer

Burk June 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I think this interpretation of Abdullah is very problematic. Karzai is busy setting up a re-Pashtunization of Afghanistan, with an alliance between himself and his corrupt friends, and the “good” Taliban. Of course the Tajiks and other former N. Alliance folks are upset. They wanted a national government, but that hope has been destroyed bit by bit by Karzai’s incompetence and nepotism. You are right that a return to civil war is brewing here, but Abdullah et al. are hardly the only spoilers.

Likewise with all our efforts at governance- completely pointless and bootless without Karzai’s cooperation, since he has all the power in the system we helped set up. And he is using it at cross-purposes, with the bank and the prison system as prime examples.

Rajiv June 4, 2011 at 12:24 am

I have to disagree completely with your assessment, especially in regards to US army being able to control parts of Afghanistan. Go to Helmand, and see who is in control there, and it is not the US or the Kabul government. In general, Southern and Eastern Afghanistan belong to the rural Pashtun tribes, and if you go there now, you will know who controls the area.

There is nothing to discuss about this war other than that we have lost it, and it is time for us to accept it rather than think up ridiculous theories as to why something is not the way it is.

This region can never be ruled by anyone other than the Pashtuns. Matt Hoh, a former Marine, has made it pretty clear who rules Afghanistan, and it is not us, or the Kabul government.

anan June 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Rajiv, it isn’t the “US army” that should be in control. It is enough if the Taliban and especially the more dangerous Taliban factions are not in control and if the local tribes have some kind of understanding with the GIRoA.

Hoh had a bad personal relationship with 2-205 ANA bde and its ISAF advisors in Zabul province. This affected his observations. 2-205 ANA have more popular support and respect in Zabul than his comments imply. To date, the Taliban has failed to take them on. [Maybe because the Taliban see Zabul as a logistics and transportation area and are reluctant to risk this by fighting ANSF and ISAF.]

The Quetta Shura Taliban and Gerdi Jangal Shura Taliban do not control Helmand. Even in greater Sangin, they are increasingly afraid of fighting BG Abdul Wasea’s 2-215 ANA bde. In some parts of Helmand, more locals want to join the ANSF than the ANSF have training seats for.

This said the Taliban haven’t been defeated either. But unless ISAF cuts off combat enablers and funding for the ANSF, neither can Taliban defeat the ANSF. At best the Taliban can achieve indefinite stalement and high residual violence.

While this is tragic for Afghans, from the standpoint of internationals [Iranians, Russia, India, China, Turkey, NATO, Afghans who live in the North and West], this is a type of semi victory.

Anyone who says the ANSF have “lost” the war in Afghanistan as a whole is either an enemy of the GIRoA/ANSF or ill informed. This isn’t to deny that the ANSF and ISAF are losing in Nuristan, Kunar, parts of Logar, parts of Ghazni, and in some other specific pockets.

But even in ares the ANSF/ISAF are losing such as Kunar, things are not hopeless. There are many Pashtun tribes that hate the Taliban and want to fight them. And there are plenty of 2-201 ANA soldiers who are want help these tribes fight the Taliban. And Afghans are use to fighting against hopeless odds. They did drive the Taliban out in 2001 after all.

Johnny Matrix June 5, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Anan, could you email me @ diplomaticm3@yahoo.com…heading back to Afg in the far future as an advisor and would appreciate some input

Rajiv June 4, 2011 at 12:34 am

Karzai was merely our puppet, and it appears he has cut his leash, and this has a lot to do with the situation around the world (the Mideast revolutions, our lack of credibility).

Expect Karzai to continue to make bolder moves. One thing that is very clear to Afghans is that they do not hold him accountable for the night raids/ airstrikes. His final, and yes, I think it was really his final warning alluded to this.

The regional context and the global context has to be taken into account as we see the situation play out.

Abdullah Abdullah and Saleh are merely ethnocentric opportunists who in reality do not care at all about the people they profess to speak for. No one cares what they say.

And we really need to come to terms with reality and wishful thinking. We have lost his war on all fronts. If you had exposed the war crimes our armed forces have committed from the Kill teams, night raids, and airstrikes. We control no major part of Southern or Eastern Afghanistan.

Get real

anan June 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Josh, as you can guess, think this is one of your best posts.

There is a very large and powerful anti Taliban coalition within Afghanistan. To date, I don’t think they have coalesced behind the Besij-i Melli. But they might. If the Hazaras, Uzbeks and anti Taliban Pashtuns do choose to support Besij-i Melli, and if Besij-i Melli and the ANSF commanding generals oppose the peace process, the peace process is dead. Karzai knows this, and has so far said enough anti Taliban, anti Pakistan, and pro ANSF things in public to keep this from happening. This is also why Karzai hasn’t yet negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban since the terms the Taliban are willing to offer so far are unacceptable to the Afghan establishment and ANSF leaders.

Rajiv, every night raid in Afghanistan has ANSF participation. This has been the case for years. Karzai de facto authorizes all of them.

About 12% to 16% of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by ANSF + ISAF. A large number of the civilian casualties that Karzai rails against are caused by his own forces under his own command. This is why is comments cause consternation within the ANSF ranks and cause some of them to question whether Karzai really supports his own forces. Abdullah and Saleh have no support inside Afghanistan? No support within the ANSF ranks? What planet do you live on?

Karzai was never anyone’s puppet. Karzai, however, had considerable support from Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan, US, Europe, UN, internationals. Whenever the US threatens Karzai, Karzai responds by getting other countries to support him and the US backs down every time.

Karzai controls the ANSF. He micromanages all senior appointments and transfers. Karzai has more confidence in the abilities of the ANSF than you do. And Karzai believes that India, Russia, Turkey and Iran will continue to back him and his ANSF even if America refuses.

Osman June 5, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Do you realize that all these Afghan institutions were funded and built by non Afghans? Of course these institutions give the “ok” for operations, because they have no choice. And even if they didn’t give the ok, the operations would continue regardless.

And how is Karzai NOT a puppet? the man was flown into Afghanistan on the wings of US special forces.

anan June 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Osman, what Afghan institution or Pakistani institution has not been greatly influenced by foreigners? Please name one.

The nation of Afghanistan itself is the western part of the Persian empire, with heavy Mongol Moghul influence [itself a successor to the Mongol Seljik Turks.] Dari, which is spoken by two out of three Afghans, is Pharsi–a “foreign” language.

Between the lines I think you are implying that the Northern Alliance [and the anti Taliban Pashtun alliances] are not truly Afghan. In what way are they less Afghan than HiG, Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Quetta Shura Taliban? How long do you think what is loosely called the “Taliban” would last if their international combat enablers–embedded combat advisors, trainers, supply, transportation, maintenance, equipment, money–were cut off?

If you think ISAF would continue operations that were opposed by President Karzai and the commanding generals of the ANSF; have a bridge I would like to sell you. Yes the ANSF get international money. So does the Pakistani Army. The Pakistani Army still does whatever the hell they want to, even if it leads to major terrorist attacks against the hands that feed them. Similarly the ANSF and the Presidential Palace doesn’t necessarily “listen” to the people who fund them.

Is the entire Popalzai tribe a “puppet”? Does that include Ahmad Shah Abdali Durrani [Iranian puppet]? Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar [ISI puppet]?] Is Karzai an Indian puppet because he went to Himachal Pradesh University? Is Karzai a Russian/Iranian/Turkish/Indian puppet for accepting their help against the Taliban?

What prominent Afghan on any side hasn’t taken international help? Just because they take international help doesn’t make them any less patriotic, or make them less respected among Afghans. This includes some of the local Afghan Taliban leaders.

If you are implying that the Afghan National Army is some kind of foreign hand, how many Afghans agree with you? No other institution in Afghanistan is even close to as popular and respected as the ANA.

“The NDS is about as competent as the ISI, which means its not at all.” I don’t like how the ISI uses its influence, but relative to their budget the ISI is the most competent intelligence agency in the world. If the NDS is as competent as the ISI, that is high praise. What foreign hand does NDS represent? KHAD [think you mean Russia]? Iran? India? Turkey? Europe? CIA? Israel? Jews? Shiites? The ISI has been feeding these kinds of innuendos to the international press.

Is Saleh really more anti-Pakistan than most Afghans? The reason he rails against Pakistan is that that kind of talk is popular and wide spread among Afghans. I agree, however, that Afghanistan and the ANSF are still too weak to risk talking that way in public. And even if the ANSF were more powerful, they should still talk more politely in public. However, this criticism applies to most Afghans, not just Saleh.

Saleh will flee Afghanistan? Do you mean he will flee to Kabul, Kapisa, Panjir, Parwan, Bamiyan, the North, or the West? Most Afghans live in the anti Taliban center, North and West. Most Afghans hate the Taliban. Are anti Taliban Afghans not real Afghans? Are the only true Afghans Pashtuns who live in the east and the South?

To be clear many Pashtuns from the south and the east who are at least partly sympathetic to the Taliban are real Afghans too.

The only way the civil wars of Pakistan and Afghanistan end is if there is some type of reconciliation between anti Taliban Afghans [such as Saleh and Abdullah], Afghan Pashtuns from the east, Afghan Pashtuns from the South, Pakistani Pashtuns, and Pakistanis.

The fantasy that extremist parts of the Pakistani Army can help Sirajuddin Haqqani defeat the ANSF and GIRoA completely, and rule all of Afghanistan are completely irrational and extremely dangerous.

Don Bacon June 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

I smell influence from India — pro-Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban/Pakistan. And I suspect Karzai might easily fall into this camp.

What thinkest thou?

Osman June 5, 2011 at 2:47 am

Saleh and the like are clowns. Content in their roles within the government but once they are let go, they become the “opposition.” Between building homes in Dubai, stealing money from the banks, and taking land from the locals, its hard to imagine how they find time for politics.

anan June 5, 2011 at 3:55 am

Saleh is many things, but he is no clown. The Pakistani Army takes him very seriously and so should you, Osman. Can you prove that Saleh is corrupt? I have never seen evidence of it.

If you can’t prove Saleh is corrupt, stick to criticizing his politics.

Let me start. Afghanistan is a poor country with only 33 million people and a security force that is dependent on international combat enablers. Afghanistan is too weak to risk antagonizing the Pakistani Army any more than it absolutely has to. The Pakistani Army can break Afghanistan, even if the whole rest of the world tries to help Afghanistan.

Saleh was not sufficiently diplomatic in his personal interactions with Pakistani Army commanding generals or Musharraf. Musharraf has grossly insulted Saleh in front of Karzai and even lunged at him, causing Karzai to come between them. At the very least, Saleh should have waited until the ANSF were more capable before behaving in this way. You cannot always oblige, but you can always talk obligingly.

It is funny that so many criticize Saleh despite being less accomplished than him. At least Saleh is competent, hardworking, committed, self confident, and patriotic.

The NDS is the most capable and feared Afghan institution today, and much of this is because of Saleh. Much of the success against AQ and the Taliban in Pakistan is because of the NDS’ intelligence, as are many of the successful raids inside Afghanistan. [Yes, the NDS sometimes goes too far. Is there anyone in the greater region who doesn’t go too far.]

Osman June 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Saleh has proven himself by the company he keeps. According to him, the Taliban have no place in Afghanistan while he holds none of his former Northern Alliance buddies accountable for their unspeakable crimes.

While blaming everything on Pakistan is convenient, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem which is the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. If America leaves Afghanistan before there is a political settlement, the suits and ties such as Abdullah 2x and Saleh will flee as well.

The NDS is about as competent as the ISI, which means its not at all. An institution that is merely the local face of a foreign political hand, not unlike KHAD.

DD June 5, 2011 at 4:09 am

What? Mr. Hoh’s remarkable half tour as a DoS temporary employee? Did he get some amazing insight sitting at a PRT in Zabul and BCT in JBad? Please. All this “This War Is Lost” rhetoric is not helpful. If you would like to go on record as being against the war, then I guess you could consider yourself successful. As far as contributing anything meaningful to the dialog, you fall woefully short. “Karzai’s a puppet,” “The Tajiks are racist,” “No one will ever control the Pashtuns.” I get it. Other than making each of these groups sound like one maniacal laugh short of super-villainhood, what’s your point?

Do you think the US honestly wants to “rule” this place? Hell no. We’d probably like to ensure we’ve made it reasonably difficult for an international organization such as Al Qaeda to operate here, and we’d like to help some poor people out, no matter how badly we seem to suck at development.

Our biggest crime here has been having faith that Afghanistan could rapidly develop a functioning government, relatively free of corruption, able to honestly assist us in targeting insurgents that are/were credible threats, and fairly distributing $billions in development funds and resources. Dysfunctional as they may be, it isn’t PRT commanders squandering development funds into secret fortunes in Dubai, it’s Afghans.

The US will survive this expedition just fine, with the usual tolerable level of criticism from the international community. 10 years of boots on the ground training and experimenting with new toys is not something the military will be unhappy with. If Afghans want to kill each other after we leave, it’s only one step further from the obscene levels of theft and corruption they’ve achieved in the last 10 years. Who will you blame when Afghans are openly killing each other, have squandered the $billions we attempted to spend here, and have nothing to show for it? Is it our fault? Have we lost? Lost what, exactly? I doubt I will give it a second thought when I am back in the states in two months drinking a beer and sitting by the pool.

Osman June 5, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Of course you don’t care, you play a country like a chess piece for your own aims and then dump it aside once its no longer an asset. All the while, blaming the locals for their situation.

DD June 6, 2011 at 7:26 am

If only I had that much power. Wow. I must of forgot that part of the meeting when we Americans get together as we do every week and decided best courses of action for controlling impoverished nations around the world at the expense of our own tax payers.

“Play a country like a chess piece?”

What does that even mean? It’s so dramatic. Are you writing a script? I can assure you, my chief concerns are helping the villagers where I am with schools and projects, while trying not to get shot or step on anything that goes boom. If you’re looking for devious political machinations, look elsewhere.

Pundita June 6, 2011 at 6:38 am

Mr Foust — Regarding your remarks that Amrullah Saleh is a rabid Taliban-hater and opposes a political settlement to end the war: you are wildly inaccurate.

It’s also a gross distortion to write that he demanded the US carpet bomb Pakistan.

What I find the most disturbing about your post is that in the second-to-last paragraph you make the same point that Saleh has made again and again — that the US has been ignoring the politics of Afghanistan — yet your remarks about Saleh cover up this fact.

While he’s clearly opposed to Hamid Karzai’s attempts at peacemaking that’s not the same as saying he’s opposed to reintegrating Afghan Taliban into Afghan’s government.

Saleh doesn’t oppose a political settlement; indeed, he’s clearly stated that he believes a political settlement is the only way to end the war; the very “Frontline” interview you linked to in your post underscores this!

Here’s what he said:

“There must be a process. And according to that process, based on that process, Taliban should become part of the society and play according to the script of democracy. They should be demobilized, disarmed, reintegrated the way Northern Alliance was. … And also they should denounce violence. And that process will bring a lasting stability. […]”

Saleh reiterated his belief most recently during a roundtable discussion about holding peace talks with the Taliban that was conducted by was conducted by Radio Free Afghanistan. Here are the relevant passages, which clearly indicate that Saleh is not a rabid Taliban hater, not opposed to peace talks, and not opposed to a political settlement:

“Saleh, who is widely seen as a rising leader of the opposition, said he strongly objects to Karzai’s referring to the Taliban as “brothers” in talks over Afghanistan’s future. “Becoming too benign and soft and calling them brother and convincing people that if it works it will be an alliance of two brothers; that is not going to help the country,” Saleh said.

“Instead, he said, the government must make clear to the Taliban that they have a place in Afghanistan only if they accept the values of pluralism and a parliamentary system. He said he does not rule out talks per se, but his message to the Taliban is this:

“You must become a mainstream political force, play according to the scripts of democracy. If you win, either in a province or at a sub national level, or beyond that, through the script of democracy we will not create any hurdles for you to govern,” Saleh said.

“But if you come through the barrel of a gun, through IEDs, through suicide bombings, through beheadings, we will not bow to terrorism; we will not bow to that kind of force.”

Amrullah Saleh is too cool a customer to be rabid about anything but to the extent he hates, he’s a terrorist hater, and he has the most rational of reasons for such hatred.

And in his op-ed for National Review Online, “The Anti-Taliban Constituency,” Saleh laid out what is clearly a political approach to ending the war. Again, there’s nothing rabid about his remarks, unless one wants to view a frank appraisal of NATO machinations in Afghanistan as rabid.

Regarding your statement that Saleh is “demanding the carpet bombing of Pakistan,” I’m not aware that he has made any such statement in public. He did tell Frontline, in the same interview you linked to in your post, that the U.S. should bomb terrorist enclaves in Pakistan because it was adhering to a double standard by bombing Kandahar “because we have some expendable Taliban roaming around, and they don’t bomb Pakistan despite knowing all the high-value targets are there. This is not fair.”

Saleh is correct in observing that the US has found nothing strange about bombing parts of Afghanistan to rubble even while knowing that the vast majority of terrorists are based in Pakistan. It’s from that viewpoint he advocated that the US stop clowning around with drones in Pakistan and put real air firepower into taking out the terrorists holed up there. But this is a far cry from advocating “carpet bombing” Pakistan.

Regarding your view that Saleh threw a “petulant temper tantrum over having to give up his guns in 2002 while the Taliban didn’t” — I feel silly continuing to treat a drive-by shooting as an analysis, but if you can present some sort of documentation to back up your view I’ll play the fool and read it.

Peter Rhode June 6, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Well said Pundita. You summerized what the chillingly competent Saleh has been saying for years. Joshua appears suffering from some sort of grudge against certain people during his stay in fghanistan.

anan June 6, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Goes without saying that I agree with every word of Pundita’s comment.

Peter Rhode, yes Saleh is “chillingly competent” . . . couldn’t agree more. For full disclosure, I am a fan of Saleh.

This said, don’t agree that Joshua has a grudge against Saleh. Some other Afghans also dislike Saleh, including anti Taliban ones. Some of these Afghans have shared their perspectives with Joshua. And truth be told, some of these criticisms aren’t entirely without merit. It is up to Joshua if he wants to elaborate on the reasons many Afghans criticize Saleh; however please don’t accuse Joshua of bad faith.

Arguably there is justifiable resentment against Saleh within the ANA for his record on information sharing and collaborating with ANA senior officers and ANA G2 officers. It is understandable if some Pashtun ANA senior officers felt that their background might have been held against them.

Joshua, I don’t know if Saleh was unhappy about the Northern Alliance being disarmed. [Do you have evidence to the contrary?] He was almost certainly unhappy about ISAF and America impeding ANSF development [which Afghans believe happened in an attempt to appease the Pakistani Army.]

Samir Gardizi, agree with most of your comments. Yes, more than 80% of all US aid has probably gone to Pashtuns in the South and East. It is misleading to call Tajiks wealthy. And there is too much Tajik bashing.

At the same time, Joshua isn’t anti Tajik and it is incindiary to accuse Joshua of being anti Tajik. It is legitimate to criticize his views and politics, so please limit yourself to that.

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 7:58 am


The terms Saleh set out for how he’d consider a Taliban reconciliation acceptable—laying down weapons, accepting the constitution as is, and so on—are not actually terms for negotiation, but demanding the Taliban surrender before negotiating. And that’s fine, but call it what it is: surrender. “I demand you give up everything and I give up nothing” isn’t a considered or constructive position from which to begin a negotiations process, it is a tantrum.

Saleh’s comparison to the way the Northern Alliance DDR’d is not only inaccurate—huge swaths of the NA never did that, they just pledged some kind of paper allegiance to the Coalition and kept on stealing from and abusing the communities they were in—it is a distortion of the last 25 years of militant politics have functioned. The NA took over Kabul, and then took over the government—and then complained when any other group, of which the Taliban is but one, didn’t like it.

You also mischaracterize Saleh’s statement on bombing Pakistan. His full statement: “I encouraged America to use Air Force, bomb Pakistan, force it to stop supporting Taliban and Al Qaeda, period; let alone drones.” No limitation of area, no talk of “enclaves,” nothing. A Pakistani interprets that only one way: as punitive strikes, not targetted strikes. And you know that.

But look we can play this game all month. You’re a partisan for Saleh, and that’s fine too. But again: be up front about it, and stop spinning your support for a politician as objective apolitical analysis of a country’s civil war.

Dafydd June 6, 2011 at 9:11 am

What I see is people positioning themselves for a US /NATO withdrawal. We have to expect Obama to start reducing troop numbers before the next US presidential election. The UK is certainly keen to run.

In that eventuality, we have to expect the country to split and fight, largely along the lines of Pashtuns vs. the rest.

What is less clear is how soon and how complete a withdrawal would be. People in the west expect continued garrisoning of the country. I am not at all convinced that is how the Afghans see it.

From the very beginning the biggest barrier to Western success in Afghanistan was the idea that their opponents would be able to wait them out. All the Taliban had to do for victory was to avoid defeat. Looks to me like we have reached the point where people no longer expect the western forces to be around for very long. That in itself makes their defeat inevitable.

quell June 7, 2011 at 7:13 am

I was talking to a soldier at a Memorial day barbeque who had just finished his tour in A-stan. He said the drawdown has already started, and also, incidentally, that ALL troops returning from A-stan theater are required to undergo PTSD counselling since the Kill Squad.

Do you know who Imran Khan is? He is a former cricket captain and the head of the Pak Justice Movement Party. In April he lead the sit-in to close the NATO supply routes in Peshawar. He has also filed suit in international court against America, to stop the droning.
The American presence has become destabilizing in AfPak.
We have no choice but withdrawal.

anan June 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Imran Khan is an enemy of the GIRoA and ANSF, and the Shiites. He is also a partisan on behalf of the Pakistani Army and ISI against much of Pakistani civil society and the Pakistani civilian government. He sympathizes with the Taliban. [To include Sirajuddin Haqqani, now dead Ilyas Kashmiri/Lashkar e Jhanvi/Bde 055/Bde 313/Lashkar al Zil combo, Lashkar e Taiba, Jaish e Mohammed, Mullah Omar.]

The last person anyone should be taking advise from is Imran Khan and his goofball friend Ahmed Quraishi.

(It is possible Imran Khan might be a well intentioned naive useful idiot.)

passivenicheprofits June 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

I agree with dafydd. The Current way the west is structured means there is no simple path to withdrawal.

poker siteleri June 6, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Rebellion of 2011, Arab countries began. a matter of time out of war

Samir Gardizi June 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I strongl disagree with joshua on the assessment which seems lack even basic substance. Saleh convincinlgy calls for “a pluralistic society” devoid of rule of guns. He urges that, like the former Norther Alliance, Taliban should disarm and enter int politics.
The arguement that the this war between educated & wealthy Tajiks and illetrate pashtoons, you got it fundamentaly wrong. Surveys after surveys show that less than 10% of Afghans support the Taliban. Moreover, some 80% of US money going to south + plus money from drugs, and still you call Tajiks as being the wealthy guys agains the Pashoon peasants – what a non sense!! As peter said you must have developed grudge against Tajiks, for personal reason, during your stay in Afghanistan.

Homira Nassery June 6, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Thanks Pundita and Peter. Josh, wow. What happened? This is the most unbalanced diatribe I’ve ever heard from you. As a Pashtun, I resent being called uneducated and poor, and as an Afghan I resent your hate-mongering of our Tajik brothers and sisters. Dude, maybe you need to take a break from Afghanistan because you’re really deluded on the Saleh issue. I am Pashtun-Pashtun, 500% as my family in Shakardara say, and I’m so sad to see Westerners creating more divisions among us. Sure Karzai’s cronies want to marginalize the ethnic “minorities” (uhm…60% of the population does not constitute a minority), but you’re giving them some sick ammo. And Farooq Wardak?? Really?? Please go pick on another country – you’re not helping America or Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 8:01 am


I don’t think you actually read this post if you think I called all Pashtuns uneducated and poor. I very specifically described the Taliban’s Pashtun support base as largely uneducated and poor—which is perfectly accurate outside the major cities.

It’s not the West that’s “creating more divisions” in Afghanistan: take responsibility for your own politics. It is other Afghans doing it. Karzai isn’t the one marginalizing minorities, unless you mean Pashtuns losing seats in the Wolesi Jirga was just a ruse. And Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras are, in fact, minorities, since they are each less of the population than Pashtuns.

Calm down a bit before commenting next time, yeah?

Hassan June 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm

another nonsense by josh, by the way, you are welcome to negotiate with Taliban, no body forces you to not negotiate! why peaking on Tajiks? cus they want justice and prosperity in Afghanistan political system? is that your problem with them? this is our internal matter, in other hand, if some groups wants to create totalitarian state, we will oppose them, as we did before, we simply want justice and we are worried about collapsing all effort has been made to stabilize Afghanistan. they have every right to be worried, and speak their voice out.

Hassan June 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm

don’t you think you crossed the neutrality in this matter? i should remind you you have done this for many years, its better to leave this field and find another job for yourself. no offend.

Peter Rhode June 8, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I agree with Hassan. I’ve noticed that many of Joshua’s articles have pro-Pashtoon tone. “Wealthy Tajiks”!! – what a nonsense??
He is more pro-Taliban than the Taliban themselves.

Asmat June 7, 2011 at 6:16 am

I completely disagree with what the writer says about Amrullah Saleh and Dr. Abdullah. They are at best great Personalities with heaps of experience in governance and potential presidents. Remember Dr Abdullah never lost the election but it was rigged by Karzai. We all know more than 1.5 million votes of Karzai were fraudulent. And he is not a legitimate president with 50+1 % vote.

The people of Afghanistan will never let the Talibanisation of Afghanistan take place. They want democracy and a democratic government. Deal with Taliban undermines the past ten years gains and sacrifices made by the afghans, the americans and the international community. This deal will lead to another civil war like the 1990s. America must be vigilant not to be fooled by Nazi Fascists like Ghulam Farooq wardak and Karzai who want to run ethnic cleansing of non pashtoons by the Taliban.

Amrullah and Dr Abdullah have the full backing of the afghan society in not making deals but bringing in sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan.

quell June 7, 2011 at 7:04 am

The people of Afghanistan will never let the Talibanisation of Afghanistan take place. They want democracy and a democratic government.

False. Even Petraeus admits the Talibs will be part of whatever government the US leaves behind. The Terik-e-Taliban is part of the Pakistani government.
What if the Arab Spring comes to AfPak?
Again, Afghanistan is 99% muslim. The people of Afghanistan, when DEMOCRATICALLY empowered to vote, will vote for shariah law. That was Bush’s Folly. Majority muslims states will VOTE for islamic democracy, and never for “missionary” or western style democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It can’t be done.
Given that the US is losing its airbases in Iraq in December under the terms of the SOFA, it has become imperative that the US negotiate permanent airbases in A-stan.
But as the Arab Spring gains momentum, it becomes increasingly possible that the US’s only exit strategy from Afghanistan will involve helos and Kabul rooftops, in an even more disgraceful rout than our upcoming exit from Iraq in December.

quell June 7, 2011 at 6:52 am

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is that A-stan is 99% muslim. Attempting to spread “missionary” democracy with freedom of speech and religion is simply impossible in a 99% muslim state.
The Generous Quran forbids proselytizing the poor and ignorant– freedom of speech legalizes proselytization. Therefore islamic jurisprudence and freedom of speech are incompatible.

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 8:06 am

Okay guys, this is my last comment on this:

If you think I’m anti-Tajik in some way, you’re stupid and didn’t read this piece.

If you think I’m pro-Taliban in some way, you’re stupid and didn’t read this piece.

If you disagree with my characterization of Saleh, fine—please use his own statements to show why I’m misinterpreting things. Do not use emotional appeals to ethnic solidarity or complain about mysterious foreigners ruining Afghanistan. The whole point of this post is that Americans don’t know enough about Afghanistan to divide it.

Lastly, the whole point of this post is to note that Westerners don’t understand Afghan politics. If you, as a wealthy and educated Afghan (and you are, if you’re reading this comment in English on the Internet) don’t like how I portrayed those politics, fine: explain why I’m wrong. Do not, however, impugn my character, demand I find other work, accuse me of backing the Taliban, or employ any other ridiculous, tedious, and worn out cliche from the elite class in Afghanistan that have tricked white people into giving them money to build villas in Dubai (and yes, you all know a huge number of wealthy, English-speaking elite Afghans have done this regardless of ethnicity).

Allow this discussion just a shred of dignity, yeah?

Peter Rhode June 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm

The entire West and most Afghans know nothing, ha? And how sure are you about your own knowledge and judgements?

Madhu June 7, 2011 at 9:55 am

Why can’t you accept criticism, Mr. Foust? Why are you the sole arbiter of what is real and what is not in that part of the world?

Pundita was perfectly polite in her comment.

anan June 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Madhu, would like to touch base offline. Could you e-mail Joshua and connect with me that way?

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm


You should know by now that I love criticism if it’s based on fact. Challenge my analysis. Don’t accuse me of hating Tajiks or saying things I very clearly didn’t. That’s what I’m reacting against.

I don’t think I was disrespectful to Pundita. She accused me of being wrong, I responded why I felt she was wrong. She’s more than welcome to respond, which I think she will.

Pundita June 7, 2011 at 11:55 am

Mr Foust: Partisanship is an affectation a foreign policy analyst can ill afford. So to the extent I engage in partisanship I am a partisan for U.S. strategic interests in South/Central Asia. I defend Amrullah Saleh on that basis only, and even my defense is tempered by disagreement that I’ve put in writing on my blog; i.e., I disagree with his advice to bomb Pakistan. And although this is a digression I am even against the drone strikes in Pakistan, for reasons I made clear in my January 25 post about Saleh’s interview with Martin Smith for Frontline — the same interview you linked to in your post.


So to attempt to discredit my entire reply to your post by labeling me a partisan for Saleh is at best inaccurate.

I will reply to other points you made in your answer to my comments because I believe the discussion would be helpful but I’d like to post the above right away so that anyone reading this comment section at present is not misled by your characterization of me.

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm


We disagree strongly, then, on the value of Mr. Saleh to U.S. strategic interests. I think our reliance on people like him is a major reason why the war is going so poorly, and that we’ll be better off discarding him as a source and facilitator in the country.

Sorry for misunderstanding your strong support for Saleh. But I think you’re missing a lot of what he’s saying in his statements as well.

DD June 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I’m sorry, random comment posters, but how much awareness on this conflict have you raised? How much have you contributed to worldwide military and academic understanding of Central and South Asia? Show me the regional expert/political theorist who is always right about their area of expertise, and I will introduce you to Santa and his elves.

Not that he needs defending from your poorly articulated arguments, but if it wasn’t for individuals like Josh Foust, many more thousands of people around the world wouldn’t know the difference between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, Turkmen, etc.

If you want to vent your rage on Americans via the internet, find one that still thinks Afghans speak Arabic. They are more the majority anyway, and you will feel much, much more satisfaction in disparaging them, vs. someone who quite possibly may know more about your country than you do.

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Thank you, I appreciate it.

Pundita June 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Mr Foust: This is regarding your initial reply to my initial comments about your post; I’ve just seen your 1:49 PM comment and will reply at some point because I perceive in your latest remarks a basis for serious discussion. For now, though:

Amrullah Saleh has actually been more than fair in his approach to the Taliban. He made a huge concession to the Taliban by not demanding de-Talibanization of the Afghan government. Yet by making the concession, which is in line with the peace council and Afghan regime’s approach, he has violated the ground rules of formal negotiations relating to an agreement that would be legally binding.

Such negotiation does not begin with conceding any part of the other’s point of view and demands, or with an invitation to compromise. Negotiations open with both sides clearly stating their position and demands and bringing some sort of threat to back up their demands.

If that last surprises you — amazing but true successful negotiation is based in part on the principle of retaliation — a point that game theorists studied and codified decades ago. This is a point lost on many who’re unfamiliar with the negotiation process; many tend to wrongly assume that compromise is the basis for negotiation. Compromise is not the basis; it’s the result of a negotiation process.

For background on this point, see Robert Axelrod’s cover article for The Economist “The Importance of Being Nice, Retaliatory, Forgiving, and Clear,” November 9, 1985.

From the above I hope you can see that Saleh is not being unreasonable or “petulant,” as you term it, by clearly laying out what he considers the Afghan government’s position should be with regard to negotiating with the Taliban.

Re your remarks about Saleh’s comments about bombing Pakistan, I want to note that in my first comment about your post, I initially included the very quote you provided from Saleh’s remarks about bombing Pakistan as part of a more extensive quote from the Frontline transcript. I removed the entire passage when I noted Registan’s 5,000 character limit for each comment.

Yet if one reads the remark you quoted within the context of the questions leading up to it, and within the context of Saleh’s complete answer (which, again, you didn’t provide) it’s clear that Saleh was making a tit-for-tat argument: If ISAF is bent on bombing Afghanistan to rubble to catch a few Talibs, then why don’t they go bomb Taliban hideouts in Pakistan?

As to your remark, “A Pakistani interprets that only one way: as punitive strikes, not targetted strikes. And you know that” — I have seen nothing in your remarks to indicate you are knowledgeable about how Pakistan’s military or civilian leaders interpret anything.

And from Saleh’s high regard for the ISI chief, which he expressed in the interview, Gen. Shuja and he could have cleared up any misunderstanding about the remark with one phone call. Saleh is not a fool, you understand. He can be as pragmatic as necessary when he thinks the situation warrants. He has demonstrated that many times.

As for your presuming to know what I know — I am a guest in your house, so speak, which prevents me from saying what I think of grandiosity as a debating tactic.

Joshua Foust June 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm


Let’s be real here: Saleh is not demanding the unconditional surrender of the Taliban as a first ploy in a long game based on his considered and nuanced understanding of the application of game theory to conflict resolution. He is demanding it because he doesn’t think he has to give up anything because he is right and the Taliban is wrong. I don’t dispute that there is still room to negotiate despite that sort of position, but to pretend it’s grounded in a 26-year old Economist article about negotiations is more than a bit silly.

To repeat: his approach is neither fair nor is it aimed toward reconciliation. Also, too, is his attitude toward Pakistan which is unceasingly belligerent. I think he has a good reason to be belligerent, considering what the ISI has done to Afghanistan. But—and do a bit of homework before you make comments about my background and knowledge please (and who are you anyway? I don’t find it easy to respect anonymous pseudonyms tut-tutting me in my own comments section—I have the balls to back up what I say with my name, and you should too)—the Pakistanis have been pretty frank that they consider such talk threatening. Pretending that they don’t is just sticking your head under the sand.

Oh, and if you do post a response here, please leave behind the passive aggressive comments about grandiosity. At least if you’re going to appeal to game theory for a discussion about an Afghan politician’s intemperate remarks, it’s only polite.

Johnny Matrix June 7, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Mr Foust’s reasoning and argument support is sound while the comments concerning classism / ethnicism are simply false. I have to post with a pseudonym because my line of work frowns upon the dissenting viewpoints! I know it sounds hypocritical coming from me but let’s keep it professional…but Mr Foust, in terms of reproach, welcome to my job.

Madhu June 8, 2011 at 8:38 am

Fair enough, Mr. Foust 🙂

Hey, why am I being so polite these days? I don’t even recognize my blog comments anymore.

This is a productive discussion because many fears are being put out in the open:

1. Fears from Americans that we will continue to throw good money after bad (and worse, when it comes to our precious blood and treasure).

2. Fears of Afghans who wonder if an integrated – but not defanged – Taliban will just bide its time and then go back to its old behavior with full Pakistani military backing.

3. Fears that the Abbottabad raid didn’t change the Pak ruling regime’s calculations and that they will go back to shilling the Americans and using overblown fears and so forth to extract more concessions from the west – a negotiating tactic discussed in How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Rollercoaster by Howard B. and Teresita C. Shaffer.

So this is all very complicated and I tend to disagree a bit with the statement “the Pakistanis have been pretty frank that they consider such talk threatening.”

Or rather, it is one small part of a larger story and not necessarily true when discussing the military and feudal family elites and the way in which they have traditionally interacted with their American patrons behind closed doors.

But I don’t have time to flesh this out now. Will hopefully do so in another blog comment.

Again, I found this a useful discussion. It mimics the many fears of the various participants and is therefore helpful.

Well, it’s what I think anyway. Please don’t take offense anyone. We need to keep an eye on that part of the world even if you favor a smaller footprint as I do.

It’s still dangerous.

Boris Sizemore June 10, 2011 at 9:52 am

This was an interesting read as the sun goes down over Peshawar…

The range of comments was impressive and the level of resistance to the comments from the proNA crowd was great.

As somebody who has spent some time with Saleh with Josh Novak I was a bit surprised by the relative weight he is given by all concerned.

By virture of his position in the both the initial anti Taliban struggle and in the Intelligence apparatus Saleh is a key figure. But not nearly at the level portrayed by all here, via pro and con.

Saleh is one of many anti Taliban leaders. One of many. He has a rather small tribal base, a bigger political base. He is clearly stating the not well kept secret that many Afghans are not going to just lay down and open negotiation with the Taliban, its factions or the ISI backers of the Pakistani expansion group.

In Afghan society, Saleh is not really one of the key influence makers, I would term him rather on the young side, maybe just close to attaining a seniority. This is not Tajik, Pashtun or whatever based, it is just that he is not seen as a real Senior leader and more of a mouth piece.

For Afghans, a mouth piece role is not really the best. No one wants to known for his mouth particularly.

Westerners know him, he has great English and thus he becomes a leadership example. But this is just because we know him, not because Afghans perceive him as a real leader.

This is really not the case. He is one of a large group of the remaining anti Taliban NA based leadership which is preparing for the future with very clear eyes. The US is slowly getting out, and Saleh and the rest are clearly drawing up lines of discussion and operational concepts for this future.

What he says is not important for “what he says” but rather as a general directional indicator for those in the clear NO camp vis a vis the negotiation and the Pakistanis. His views are really representative of a broad range of Afghans and not as Tajik per se.

I would really just take it as it is. Comments taken and received and no more than that, from one particular rather Junior NA leader. Getting wrapped up is missing the big picture and general direction that this war is moving in.

Negotiations will not be simple. The Peace Committee is the real bell weather for all of this because it represents a very very broad base and comments from Saleh are just that and only that, comments….much ado about…comments is just much ado about comments and there is a lot more going on to be aware of in Kabul and Islamabad right now.

anan June 10, 2011 at 10:56 am

Boris, please e-mail me from your new e-mail account.

Regarding Saleh, what you said was completely right 5 years ago. Afghanistan is, however, changing extremely fast. A very large minority of Afghans are heavily influenced by tribal dynamics. But a majority are not. Afghanistan was perhaps close to 85% rural on 9/11/2011. Today it is closer to 60% rural and dropping fast. Kabul alone has grown from 1 million to 5 or 6 million. Similar growth has taken place in Mazar, Herat, dozens of other cities, even Lashkar Gah. A new generation is growing up that is better educated, more upwardly mobile, more sophisticated, and with far greater ambitions.

Saleh represents a new “breed” of Afghan who doesn’t have a large tribal base, but obtains his political base in a very international way [please notice I don’t say “western”], through hard work, professionalism and exceptional performance. He became head of the NDS at the age of 32 and built it up with blazing speed with remarkably little ISAF assistance. The NDS is “in the lead,” and fighting its own war. Saleh has more appeal to ANSF personnel and young Afghans than middle age and older Afghans. Saleh is also not tied to the past, warlord atrocities, and Northern Alliance intra politics of the older generation.

Saleh has achieved something recently. The NDS. What have other Afghan leaders achieved recently [this goes for most Taliban leaders as well excluding Sirajuddin and a few star performers]? Saleh is also infectiously self confident and no one’s mouthpiece.

This said, Boris’ comments are accurate regarding how the older generation sees Saleh.

Yes, there is too much of a focus on Saleh in this particular article discussion. The reason for this is because Joshua Foust has long been a critic of Saleh and singled him out for criticism. So this is really a follow on discussion over many months.

Boris, the pro ISI camp uses the phrase Northern Alliance in a derogatory way. Might it be better to call it the anti Taliban Afghan camp? Many of the 42% of the ANA that are Pashtuns and non Pashtun ANA were young in the 1990s and don’t primarily identify themselves as pro Northern Alliance.

If I could change the topic, could you share your thoughts on the Peshawar Shura Taliban, their intra politics, and the degree to which they are pursuing their own agenda rather than Mullah Omar’s or the broader Quetta Shura Taliban’s. [There being factions in the Quetta Shura closer to Mullah Omar than others.] What is the affect of Ilyas’ passing on them?

With the death of Ilyas Kashmiri, around what leaders are Brigade 313, Bde 095, Lashkar e Jhanvi, Lashkar al Zil, coalescing around? How has Sirajuddin’s influence over the above factions, and Lashkar e Toiba, Jaish e Mohammed, Peshawar Shura Taliban, TTP, TNSM, been affected by Ilyas’ death.

Don Anderson June 10, 2011 at 11:40 am

Hey Boris…when will you be back. Stop by the house, send me that new email.

Anan- You get so excited. “Afghanistan is changing” “Saleh is a new breed” is just plain BS. But since you have never ever even been here it is fine. All I ever here from you is pure unadulterated BJP, and pro India in the end. Maybe you have a bias? Maybe?

Saleh is not the be all end all. And this is all being discussed because, well Saleh is known and his name easy to spell. Lots going on, very interesting, and nothing is getting decided any time soon anyway.

anan June 10, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Sorry for not pushing the ISI line.

You might ask Boris about how 1-203 ANA bde is doing in Khost and Paktia. Not the losers you imply. The AUP and ABP in Paktia aren’t losers either.

The population of Kabul increasing from 1 million to 5 or 6 million = BS? Population of Afghan urban areas close to quadruppling = BS? Number of Afghans in school increasing 10 fold and the numbers of Afghans in college increasing 20 fold = BS? Guess Afghanistan doesn’t have a very young population either? Guess there isn’t a waiting list to join the ANA? NDS = dweebs? Thanks for teaching these things.

“Saleh is not the be all end all. And this is all being discussed because, well Saleh is known and his name easy to spell.” This is what I don’t get about you. 2/3rds of what you write makes a lot of sense. But 1/3, oh la la.

“Lots going on, very interesting, and nothing is getting decided any time soon anyway.” Also true.

Stay safe in Ghazni, and hope 3-203 improves.

Don Anderson June 11, 2011 at 11:08 am

Anan–much of your confusion would be cleared up if you dared to get on a plane with a visa and visit Afghanistan spend at least five years and get to know some Afghans.

India and Afghanistan are not the same.

Until you do this your level of understanding will be obscure information lacking a cogent understanding for the place the people and their aspirations for the future. All this information means nothing until you can put it together.

Please do consider this more fully, you will benefit quite a bit from some quiet reflexion.

Your problem is not unique, but it is symptomatic of why so many Afghans are completely tuned out from any Western or BJP in your case conceptions of what is going on here right now.

All the Best, keep on Blogging Cowboy. The rest of us will try to avoid the influx of mortars which came in over the past month. Jai Hindi…!

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