NEW ORLEANS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — Not withstanding the wisdom of refraining from commentary on complex issues while on four hours’ sleep in an airport after a night drinking, among other things, moonshine, check out Dave Kilcullen’s interview on Afghanipakistan with George Packer.
Kilcullen characteristically makes a number of incisive observations — his assessment of population density in the Afghan southeast informs the basis for a population-protection strategy and wow I really hope I don’t puke on this plane — but I want to focus what he says about the prospects of negotiations with the Taliban. Not keen, in short:
Rather than talking about negotiations (which implies offering an undefeated Taliban a seat at the table, and is totally not in the cards) I would prefer the term “community engagement.” The local communities (tribes, districts, villages) in some parts of Afghanistan have been alienated by poor governance and feel disenfranchised through the lack of district elections. This creates a vacuum, especially in terms of rule of law, dispute resolution, and mediation at the village level, that the Taliban have filled. Rather than negotiate directly with the Taliban, a program to reconcile with local communities who are tacitly supporting the Taliban by default (because of lack of an alternative) would bear more fruit. The Taliban movement itself is disunited and fissured with mutual suspicion—local tribal leaders have told me that ninety per cent of the people we call Taliban could be reconcilable under some circumstances, but that many are terrified of what the Quetta shura and other extremists associated with the old Taliban regime might do to them if they tried to reconcile. So, while an awakening may not happen, the basic principles we applied in Iraq—co-opt the reconcilables, make peace with anyone willing to give up the armed struggle, but simultaneously kill or capture all those who prove themselves to be irreconcilable—are probably very applicable.
Maybe sleep and sobriety will change my perspective on this, but it doesn’t seem like Kilcullen opposes what those of us who want to negotiate with the Taliban actually mean. We have a lexicographical problem: "The Taliban" is an umbrella term for, as Kilcullen notes, a variety of groups. Advocates of negotiation want to test the tensile strength of "The Taliban’s" internal cohesiveness. (Or, more accurately, they want to disrupt that cohesiveness.) There’s not so much an expectation that the Quetta Shura — and here Kilcullen means Taliban Central, run by Mullah Omar — will be up for a parley, so much as that the prospect of Afghan government-sponsored negotiations will peel off the reconcilable elements and leave Taliban Central with a hard core that’s cut off from a population who now see the government as being more reasonable/competent than Taliban Central. That will make them easier to either kill or pressure into capitulation. Negotiations with the leadership of Taliban-supporting tribes is a creative means to what seems to me like a mutual end.
Now, it’s entirely possible that all this will fail. Joe Collins made the good point that "The Taliban" have been, basically, winning for about 18 months. Why negotiate now? At last week’s COIN Leaders Conference, Lt. Col. Mark Ulrich insightfully observed that ascendent insurgent groups that seek negotiations are most often pursuing a strategy of subverting a government from within. Despite the fact that the Afghan government and not the Taliban are pressing for negotiations, it’s still a good point.
Still, I don’t see the downside to pursuing negotiations. The worst that can happen is the Afghan government can be embarrassingly turned down. (And the question of "Taliban" sincerity is one that can only be answered by a negotiations process.) For the first time, the Afghan government can plausibly say that it tried everything reasonable to deal with the "Taliban," giving them a plausible answer to "Taliban" propaganda about the perfidious aggression of the American stooge Hamid Karzai, etc. None of this is a guarantee of success. But it has a greater chance of success than the present course of limited-resource-counterinsurgency-minus-a-political-strategy.