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      Talk With The Taliban, Better Now Than Later

      Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists by Scott Atran (Ecco, 2010).

      An analysis by Scott Atran with introduction by Tom Hayden.

      As he ponders the size of his July troop withdrawal announcement, President Obama has authorized accelerated diplomatic efforts at negotiating with the Taliban. The greater success on the diplomatic side, the easier it will be for Obama to justify bringing American troops home.

      Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is arguing that a public split between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is no longer necessary as a precondition for peace talks.

      Reaching an agreement will not be rapid or easy, with hawks on all sides trying to subvert the peace process. But it is urgent that a process be locked in place alongside the U.S. troop withdrawals.

      U.S. officials, according The Washington Post, have met several times this year in Qatar and Germany with a top Taliban representative. The Taliban will need safe passage and secure arrangements for any further diplomatic progress. They will demand release of their 20 fighters now in Guantanamo. They will need a guaranteed role in future Afghan governance. All sides will have to accept a territorial partition within a negotiated power-sharing arrangement. Regional powers like Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and Iran will have to agree on stabilization, and perhaps the presence of peacekeeping troops from non-aligned nations. Trilateral talks already are underway between the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      In domestic politics, Obama and Clinton will fight for protections for Afghan women under the new arrangements, and for the appearance of an honorable outcome for the U.S. superpower.
      Difficult? Yes, but the alternative is a deepening quagmire costing trillions of taxpayer dollars, bleeding away thousands of American lives, and inflaming Muslims against the West.

      It is time for immediate public discussion of the content of the peace process. For this purpose, the Bulletin asked Scott Atran for his analysis. Atran, who advocated talking with the Taliban in The New York Times on October 26, 2010, is a research director and professor at the Paris Center for Scientific Research as well as the University of Michigan and John Jay Colleges. He sent the Bulletin these comments:

      I had dinner with someone pretty close to the Obama administration (an academic). He posed this problem to me:

      "The President may agree with you that the response to Islamic terrorism has been overplayed and that the threat to the United States does not merit the continued out-sized reaction. So here's my question, "What to you advise the president to do to change political and public perception into something more in line with what you, and perhaps he, may believe? It obviously can't be a sudden thing, but will require a number of small steps whose accumulation and collective weight may finally change the political landscape. Into this you have to figure that some people, important people, sincerely believe that the threat is as serious as they think. Others perversely play up the threat for political gain. But somehow, both groups have to be convinced or outmaneuvered to change their attitudes as well."

      I took the question to the University of Virginia Miller School and the University of Michigan's Ford School and the responses I got were all data-driven, fact-based arguments. While I see their usefulness (and that's what I've been feeding you), in the end it has more to do I think with dealing with our own irrational fears, vengeance, humiliation and the like. Because, if you think rationally about Al Qaeda, terrorism, and Afghanistan, it's clear that Al Qaeda is only a very marginal part of the Islamic world, rejected by nearly all, and even more so now. It got lucky and we felt humiliated (as Chomksy said to me "and responded like a mafia don").

      As for terrorism today, perhaps never in human history have so few with so few actual means caused such fear in so many (pumped up and oxygenated by our pundits and politicians). Hell, the Soviets could have blown half of our people to smithereens in an hour, and in October 1962 it was deadly close to that (I remember, my father was tasked with deciding whether phantoms armed with sparrow missiles could knock out Russia nukes launched from Cuba. The answer was  "no" and he, a WWII veteran, was pretty grim for a few days).

      And Afghanistan... well the Taliban threat to us is pretty nothing. As for the status of women, the Soviets and Afghan communists also sincerely meant it when they tried to improve things, but unless the drive comes from within it'll backfire (even Amanullah, the Afghan Amir who finally kicked out the British in 1921, and who was wildly popular, was himself kicked out by the tribes when he started reforming the status of women after he paid a visit to Ataturk and tried out parts of the Kemalist program). 


      Gen. Petraeus and Marc Grossman are the key figures right now on all these issues -- and Amb. Crocker will be soon as well when he arrives in Kabul. I have no direct access to these guys but some of Petraeus' colleagues (generals) have told me that they don't believe a military victory over the Taliban was possible but that Petraeus might still believe it. That was a few months ago. That may be changing, as the depth of hostility to prolonged occupation sinks in. Yet I hear some of his aides talking about how "community development programs" are going to really help democratize Afghan society and I ask myself what world they live in. It's on the order of saying "if we introduce Pashtun jirgas in NYC, New Yorkers will learn to treat one another as Afghans would."


      Alan West, First Sea Lord under Tony Blair and later chief military and security adviser to the Prime Minister until May of last year, told me and much of the British cabinet had opposed extended involvement in Afghanistan: "After the Taliban fell, we should have left as quickly as possible... When WW2 ended, we had three million troops in our sector of Germany and we brought in three hundred thousand administrators from across the British Empire. 

      The Americans had three and a half million troops in their sector. And with all of this it was still a very hard job to rebuild Germany and move it towards democracy. But in Afghanistan we were to build a nation with almost nothing. We [the Brits] were supposed to secure Helmand Province with no real means or plan. That made no sense."

      But, said West, Prime Minister Blair told his doubting advisers to trust in the American President (West said that Blair had personally bonded with Bush and believed in him? What a crazy basis for one supposedly democratic nation to decide the fate of another nation). This, despite the fact that anyone with the least sense of history might have demurred, if only because the Soviets had recently lost a ten-year war to impose political and social change on the country, and Britain itself had previously lost three major wars in a century of fighting the very same Pashtun tribes that would compose the Taliban.

      Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's Ambassador to Afghanistan until last May (I think) told me: "There is no military solution to the problem of terrorism and to the insurgency in Afghanistan. But the Americans are not yet convinced of that. Only when the Americans seriously engage the Taliban in talks, will the Taliban take peace talks seriously. Without the Taliban, there will be no peace."

      My hope is that the joy expressed by Americans in killing Bin Laden has gone enough of the way to satiating the quest for vengeance that Obama can disengage from Afghanistan.


      Here’s my summary of the situation:

      2010 was the bloodiest year yet of fighting, with an attack coming about every half hour. The estimated number of Taliban has increased some tenfold since they were routed by coalition forces in 2001, even as Western forces were doubling and redoubling their size. Now, Taliban now roam over large swaths of territory in the north and other areas beyond the traditional Pashtun southern provinces. The U.S. claims to have killed thousands of Taliban since the surge, in fact mostly foot soldiers and mid-level commanders. But the 25-year-old foot soldiers are being replaced by teenage fighters, and the 35-year-old mid-level commanders by 20-something students straight out madrassahs (madrassahs have little role in global jihad but madrassahs that cater to the rural poor in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for whom government provides no education, help sustain the Taliban movement). These new mid-level commanders and their fiercely loyal fighters are increasingly removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage (qawm), and especially of friendship born of common life experiences (andiwali), that bind together the Taliban leaders of the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and other insurgent groups. Indeed, it is primarily through andiwali -- overlapping bonds of family, schooling, years together in camps, former comrades in war, business partners, neighbors -- that talks between adversaries, including representatives of Mr. Karzai and Mullah Omar, have continued over the years.

      These new Taliban warriors are increasingly independent, ruthless, and unwilling to compromise with foreign infidels and their associates. They yearn to fight, and describe battle as "going on vacation" from the long, boring interludes of training and waiting between engagements. They claim they will fight to death as long as any foreign soldiers remain, even if only in military bases. As with older Taliban, their ideology -- a peculiar blend of pan-Islam sharia law and local pashtunwali custom -- is "not for sale," as former Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeff puts it. But now it is they, and not the senior leaders, who increasingly decide what these beliefs imply on the ground; recently in Paktia province, the Quetta Shura is reported as having sent a Muslem scholar (alim) to chastise a group of youthful commanders who were not following Quetta's directives, and the commanders killed the cleric.

      Hardly anyone who calls himself "Taliban" (an umbrella term for fractious Pashtun tribesmen who collectively hate the "foreign invader" enough to turn even traditional enemies into friends) considers U.S. conditions of reintegration anything but comical, much less negotiable. To get the tribesmen to lay down arms that have sustained them for ages against a host of powerful invaders, and for a flag that many do not even know represents the country, is about as far-fetched as getting the National Rifle Association to support a constitutional repeal of Americans' right to bear arms. The separation of men and women in the public sphere is considered the very foundation of Pashtun tribal life and pashtunwali, along with the duty to protect guests and those who seek sanctuary.

      There is, however, some hope that the Taliban can be persuaded to cut ties with Al Qaeda and offer some sort of guarantee that Afghan President Hamid Karzai won't be left hanging from a lamppost when the Americans leave (as former Afghan President Najibullah was, after the Soviets left). Reminiscing on his June 2001 meeting with Mullah Omar, veteran correspondent Arnaud de Bourchgrave told me he was "stunned by the hostility that Mullah Omar expressed towards Bin Laden." In fact, Mullah Omar had previously confiscated Bin Laden's cell phone, put him under house arrest, and forbade him to issue fatwas. But then, as the Taliban were deliberating about how to "disinvite" their troublesome guest after 9/11, the U.S. began its assault on the Taliban and bombed them into togetherness with Al Qaeda.

      According to one former top official in the Bush administration: "We knew that Karzai and Jalaluddin Haqqani (leader of an insurgent network with close ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda) were in direct contact, but it didn't go anywhere because Haqqani refused to show goodwill and give up some Al Qaeda people." Asked what the U.S. might have done had Haqqani thus betrayed his own tribal code of honor and turn on a guest who sought sanctuary, the Bush official replied, "we might have withdrawn a brigade as our show of goodwill." Of course, such requests for goodwill were more dictates of a victor upon the vanquished; for a truly comparable act by the U.S. would have been to slit Karzai's throat in exchange for, say, a ten percent reduction in attacks by Haqqani forces.

      During the Soviet-Afghan War, Haqqani, who then-National Security Adviser Zibignew Brzezinski and Congressman Charlie Wilson identified as "goodness personified," was a principal conduit of funds between Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence and the Afghan mujahideen, and remains a key link between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. Although Jalaluddin's son, Serajuddin, and other Haqqani leaders now professes loyalty to Mullah Omar and probably continue to harbor members of Al Qaeda, these ties are more in keeping with the Afghan and Arab tribal dictum "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" than out of love or common ideology. Moreover, the Haqqani have many longstanding andiwali ties with Karzai's tribe, the Popalzai, which can provide avenues of sanctuary and security for both sides. Indeed, Mullah Baradar, a Taliban leader with close ties to the Haqqani, who is currently detained in Pakistan but whose possible involvement in the ongoing talks is being leaked to the press by ISI and others, is himself a member of the Popalzei who saved Mr. Karzai's life when Mr. Karzai first reentered Afghanistan to forge his anti-Taliban alliance.

      Current thinking among the U.S. military is to wait until a few months after President Obama's declared June 2011 date for beginning to draw down troops in Afghanistan, to show the Taliban that there is still the force and will to beat them if they don't come to the table. But this isn't likely to impress any Taliban, who say that whether the U.S. leaves in 2011, or 2014 when the planned withdrawal should be complete, they will survive and thrive. But there is reason to consider turning the current shadow play about talks into serious negotiations now. Older Taliban leaders might well have droped support for Bin Laden if we were no longer there to unite them, and instead were to keep the focus on hitting a greatly weakened Al Qaeda from afar. The Haqqanis and most of Afghan Taliban leaders are exclusively interested in their homeland, not global jihad, and will discard anyone who interferes in their lives. No Haqqani ever joined Al Qaeda before 9/11 because they couldn't stand Arabs telling them how to pray and make jihad. And it is doubtful they would tolerate a meddling Al Qaeda that also continued to bring them trouble from outside. One big problem now, for Taliban leaders as for us, is that the chief "success" of the recent surge -- killing thousands of Taliban foot soldiers and mid-level commanders -- may be reaping a whirlwind that no one will control.

      So better sooner than later to get serious about disengaging from Afghanistan by engaging the Taliban.


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      Reader Comments (1)

      Useful comments that bring a reality check to America's understanding of its occupation of Afghanistan - thanks for posting. These insights should remind everyone, that military invasions always invoke resistance. There are really only two choices. Leave Afghanistan now, unconditionally, or commit massive personnel and monetary resources to an occupation that will span decades at minimum and possibly millennium in order to fundamentally change the nature of Afghan society. The later choice is completely irrational.

      June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter McNamee
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