Last Shot in Afghanistan

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Last Shot in Afghanistan

The Diplomat speaks with Fabrice Pothier, director of Carnegie Europe, about the security situation in Afghanistan, talking with the Taliban and the prospects for stability once US-led forces withdraw.

One of the biggest stories swirling around the London Conference on Afghanistan last month was the idea of talking to ‘moderate’ Taliban. What did you make of this?

I think there were two stories that came from the conference. One was the idea of buying moderate Taliban–trying to get them to leave the insurgency and join the mainstream in Afghanistan. But there was also a more important, deeper, story on the sidelines of the conference about talking to the leadership of the Taliban and starting to lay the groundwork for a political settlement between the Taliban leadership and the Kabul government.

So you have two stories. The official one, I think, offers only a limited analysis of the nature of the insurgency because basically you can’t buy your way out of it–you might be able to get a few of the field commanders, but you won’t be able to deal with the fundamental driving force, which is political. This insurgency is about a group that thinks its voice – the one of disgruntled Pashto communities – is not represented in the mainstream since 2001, and so they want a voice and they are trying to achieve that through violence. So I don’t think money is the answer to this problem.

This is why some experts from the Carnegie Endowment, including myself, are calling for a much more ambitious and political approach to the question of talking to the Taliban, and in fact doing what we should have done in 2001 at the Bonn conference, which is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and to start talking about what sort of Afghanistan we can we have together–what kind of political compromises are we ready to make on both sides and what kind of security guarantees can we give? Because if you look at the history, in the few negotiations that have taken place between the Taliban and the leadership in Kabul, such as in 2002 and 2003, they have basically failed because the Kabul government was not able to provide solid enough security guarantees to the Taliban that basically said: ‘If you return to your district, let’s say in southern Afghanistan, you won’t be shot at by anti-Taliban, non-Pashto groups. Or you won’t be captured by the US or international troops and sent to Bagram prison.’

There has to be a set of security guarantees. But the trigger has to be political. So, I don’t think the notion of moderate Taliban or the notion of buying moderate Taliban is particularly valid–I think it’s a typical construct of the Western community trying to come up with appealing sound bites. But when you know the reality on the ground, you know that this is basically a political insurgency, and that therefore you have to address the political engine. It’s not economic, it’s not about fighting against other tribes–fundamentally it’s a nationalist, fundamentalist movement.

How likely are Afghans to support such a comprehensive, political approach to the Taliban?

That’s a very good question, because I think probably the people that are most nervous about this idea about talking to the Taliban leadership and reaching some kind of political settlement are the Afghan people themselves. For some of them, especially in the cities–and there is a growing urban population–they don’t want a return to how things were before 2001. There’s certainly a lot of nervousness within this population and a feeling that they might get betrayed once more, or sold out at the political table.

So I think this has to be an open political process. You can’t settle with the Taliban on the cheap–there has to be due process. It’s about discussing the Constitution. And I think that’s where the argument by the Afghan finance minister and other senior government members in London, who were saying that as long as the Taliban agree with the Constitution and lay down their arms that they will be welcome, is a nonstarter. The key is that you need to renegotiate the Constitution–how the central power operates with the districts and provinces in Afghanistan, what place for women’s rights. These are going to be difficult questions, but you can’t do them in a backroom deal, they need to be done as part of the political process.

And I think we can’t be naïve–and I’m sure the Afghan people are aware of this—because we have within the current Afghan government some very conservative, if not fundamentalist, views. So it’s not like you’re going to import something that doesn’t already exist. I think that’s where we should be a little modest in our analysis and not so clear cut in saying the Taliban are 100 percent bad guys and the Afghan government are 100 percent good guys. Because as we all know, you also have bad guys within the Afghan government, especially some former and current warlords who have human rights violations on their hands but who sit at the Cabinet table. It’s not going to be pretty. But in order to avoid unnecessary tensions, especially with the Afghan people, it should be as open as possible.

Pakistan is seen by many as a key link in any outreach to moderate Taliban. What do you make of the role Pakistan has been playing in Afghanistan, and is a bigger role for it desirable?

It’s not now a question of whether it is desirable–it’s a necessity to make Pakistan part of the solution as Pakistan is one of the main channels toward Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network. Obviously you would need to use and leverage Pakistan’s interest in supporting the Afghan Taliban to get it to see the interest in being part of some kind of political process. And there’s some open-mindedness about this as they realize it might be a good strategy to have, let’s say, some friendly actors in Afghanistan. But that’s obviously going to raise a lot of geopolitical questions in the region, especially regarding India, which is fiercely against any major rehabilitation of the Taliban because they see the Taliban as similar to the group that hit India in Mumbai in 2008.

So India will feel it is under a growing threat, and this is where that the United States will really need to lead and provide some guarantees–it is the only country that can. For example, Pakistan will have to show it’s being more proactive in uprooting those groups like Lashka-i-Taiba that operate not only in the frontier provinces between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also throughout the country, including in the Kashmir region. In fact, India and Pakistan have reopened, modestly, communication on the Kashmir question, something which had been closed for the past few years. This is very encouraging as it could make India less nervous about Pakistan playing a more proactive role in helping the Taliban to join the political fold in Afghanistan.

How significant is the capture of the Taliban’s No. 2 likely to be moving forward?

It’s a significant development to have captured the No. 2 of the Taliban insurgency, especially the chief military strategist and especially as we can see they have followed some very smart and effective military strategies over the years. This is a significant blow for the Taliban.

But I think what is less clear is the implications for the medium and long term. For example, as I have said, we’re talking about talking with the Taliban. Well, if you start beheading the very group you want to talk to, then the risk is that you’re going to end up with a group that’s very fragmented, where there’s no obvious leader and one that won’t be able to make any hard political decisions. So here you have the tension between the immediate benefit of taking a Talban leader out of the field and the longer term question mark about who is going to be your counterpart. Who are you going to deal with?

So we have to be careful about going for quick results and in the process losing a grip on the longer term. And I also think what might happen is that we could see some kind of internal struggle in the Taliban leadership, which wouldn’t be the first time. The Taliban is already an opaque organization and all the experts are struggling to give it a clear reading. Is it made of loose cannons and small-time criminals who are pretending to fight jihad? Or is it really a co-ordinated and centralized movement?

I think cutting the head off this movement is going to make the understanding of–and therefore engagement with–the group more complicated. Of course it’s also significant that this was done in collaboration with the Pakistan government and security services who have kept–and still hold onto–a strategy of ambiguity, of hedging their bets geopolitically. They say they’re in an alliance with the United States and they get $8 billion of military and civilian aid, but on the other side they’re supporting the very groups that the United States is fighting because those groups are their best guarantee of strategic depth vis-a-vis India.

So I’m not sure if this strategy of ambiguity is going to cease anytime soon. We can hope that they’re getting serious about it, but we have to keep focused on the longer-term political outcome. Look what Israel, for example, has been doing in recent years in going after the Hamas leadership. It has not necessarily solved the political problem and has actually created a status quo where you don’t have a political partner with whom to negotiate.

There’s been a lot of talk about defining–and redefining–victory. The US effectively set a timeline to begin withdrawing troops of 18 months. What do you think the US can realistically expect to achieve in this time, and can it be anything that could be called a victory?

I don’t think the Obama strategy is fighting for victory. I think the Obama administration is realistic and modest enough to know that the best result is a relatively stable and functional country, where al-Qaeda has been disabled, terminally, and where the Taliban are too weak to pose a real threat. This is not the case currently as they control formally or informally almost half of the country. And it would also be a situation where the Kabul government is what I would say functional enough to start delivering basic security and services to the population. So it isn’t about victory. It isn’t even about success. It’s about trying to turn the dynamic from a Taliban-led one to a Kabul/Western-led one.

And there’s really no choice–this is the last strategic shot. The deadline is looming and there’s the election ahead for a second term for President Barack Obama, who doesn’t want to have a ten-year war on his hands. So we’ll have to make do with this, and this is what General McChrystal is trying to do. And I think it’s very interesting with the Marjah operation in Helmand Province, where McChrystal is really trying to capture the narrative on Afghanistan. This narrative had really been captured for many years by the Taliban who have been much better at propaganda, and at framing the troops as invaders, than we were. So McChrystal understood that the war is not so much on the battlefield anymore as in the narrative and in the rhetoric around the war.

But the question now is, how many Marjahs can we do? This is a major operation involving 15,000 US and British troops, and McChrystal is aware that he doesn’t have many bullets left in his gun, so to speak, so he has to use them wisely. It’s not about victory. It’s about turning the tide to the extent that the Afghan institutions can start doing the job. It’s not going to be easy–there are many pitfalls. One of these is that the Kabul government is not a willing reliable partner. Most Afghan people see Kabul as a threat, sometimes as much as the Taliban, so they’re feeling caught in between.

Meanwhile, too many times the US strategy–for example US commanders on the ground having their own funds that they can inject into the provinces–is fundamentally undercutting the Kabul government. Because basically you’re doing the government’s job, and telling Kabul that they are not doing their job. So this is another contradiction.

Another key question is will Pakistan really help put pressure on the Taliban bases in the frontier regions, which is absolutely key to McChrystal’s success. And also, how will the McChrystal counter-insurgency work out, because putting 15,000 troops into such a major operation can be done once, maybe twice, but it can’t be done throughout the next 18 months. Moreover there is the question of choosing strategically the parts of territory we are ready to fight for. For example, one can ask why we have made Helmand such a key frontline when only 5% of the Afghan population lives there, and it has mobilised almost half of NATO’s combat capacity. And once you’ve captured the new territory there is the issue of how you are going to hold on to it with an Afghan presence.

So I think the real question is whether we can sustain the progress we have made in the long term. And to me, it’s not clear whether that’s possible given the poor state of the Afghan government–which doesn’t have any functioning local institutions–and also the Afghan security forces.

The army is slightly better, but not capable of leading its own operations. For example, in the spring of last year, the Afghan national army was ordered by Karzai himself to secure Kandahar before the elections. This is obviously a very important place for Karzai since that’s where he comes from. And so they didn’t inform NATO because they wanted to lead their own operations, but then found they couldn’t sustain the efforts because they didn’t have the basic supply lines or the strategy to finish the operation. So they called in the Dutch commander for Regional Command South based in Kandahar to come and help. And this is what is considered to be the best functioning Afghan security force, the national army–we’re not even talking about the police, which are considered extensively corrupt, not qualified and where there are serious problems of retention.

So there are lots of pitfalls along the road, and the road is very short. We’ll have to see what we can settle with after 18 months.