Afghanistan War: Should the US be talking to the Taliban?

KABUL, Afghanistan — A new study released Monday by New York University’s Center on International Cooperation hints that U.S. strategy on Afghanistan needs a major rethink. First and foremost, the authors say, we need to identify the enemy we claim to be fighting.

“Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan,” as the report is called, fundamentally challenges the assumptions that lie at the heart of U.S. policy: that by fighting the Taliban we are punishing the forces that perpetrated Sept. 11, and consequently making our homeland safer.

In U.S. President Barack Obama’s first Afghanistan policy speech in 2009, he announced a “clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

That being the case, say authors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the United States and its allies may have been engaged in a slight case of overkill for much of the past 10 years. In the process they ignored overtures that might have short-circuited the Afghan insurgency and made it possible to help establish a more peaceful, stable state in this volatile region.

The study, released under the aegis of eminent Afghan expert Dr. Barnett Rubin, will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers in the halls of power and academe.

The basic premise of the study is that the Taliban are a different group — ideologically, strategically and tactically — from Al Qaeda. Fusing the two has made it almost impossible for the international community to conduct anything approaching productive negotiations with the Taliban — no one wants to be seen to engage with the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center and knocked a wall out of the Pentagon, killing over 3,000 civilians.

But according to van Linchoten and Kuehn, “the Taliban leaders do not seem to have had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. Bin Laden effectively manipulated the Taliban, using their lack of international experience to advance his own goals.”

This is hardly received wisdom among the American punditry.

Bruce Reidel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an influential advisor on Afghanistan within the Obama administration, dismissed any suggestion that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are marching to different drummers.

In a new report he co-authored with Michael O’Hanlon, also of the Brookings Institution, he argued:

“Those who assert that the Afghan Taliban may no longer have sympathy for these other extremists base their hopes on a thin reed. Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden continue to work together to send terrorists to the United States, as illustrated by the foiled 2009 New York metro attack planned for the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks … The Taliban were active recruiters for an Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. homeland.”

Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and CNN’s security affairs analyst, has long argued that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have fused.

But van Linschoten and Kuehn muster some compelling arguments to the contrary. They document considerable friction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda both before and after Sept. 11, and also give chapter and verse of the Taliban’s overtures to the Afghan government in late 2001 and early 2002.

“This was an important moment for the Taliban leadership; if they had been given some assurance that they would not be arrested upon returning to Afghanistan … they would have come, but neither the Afghan government nor their international sponsors saw any reason to engage with the Taliban at that time — they considered them a spent force.”

The war of attrition now being waged in southern Afghanistan is also a mistake, the authors argue. While U.S. military officials publicly insist that body counts are not the sole or even the best metric of success, it is reports of Taliban deaths that clog the wires at the press center of NATO’s International Joint Command.

Briefs on Taliban fighters or facilitators who have been “neutralized,” “dispatched,” “overcome,” or “killed” are issued several times a day.

The massive punch is taking its toll, say the Taliban with whom van Linschoten and Kuehn have been speaking. But it might not ultimately be good news for the U.S. forces. While the mid-level Taliban commanders have been all but wiped out, their places are being taken by a younger, more radical, more ideological group.

“These newer generations are potentially a more serious threat,” the authors argue. “This generation of commanders is more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations … it is not interested in negotiations or compromise with foreigners … they are citizens of jihad.”

These younger fighters might also be more inclined to accept the blandishments of Al Qaeda, whose help they will need if they are to have any hope of chasing the foreigners out of their homeland.

“Al Qaeda operatives have been known to seek out direct contact with such younger field commanders inside Afghanistan … Where the old leadership speaks of a fight against foreign invaders, the new generation is adopting the discourse of fighting against infidel crusaders.”

So the international troops are in a sense creating the very enemy they will have to defeat. The authors dub the war in Afghanistan “an avoidable insurgency” and urge the international community to open talks with the Taliban before it is too late.

“Many Taliban leaders of the older generation are still potential partners for a negotiated settlement,” they conclude.

This study might be seen by some as an apologia for the Taliban, or a hopelessly rosy view of the insurgency.

But both van Linschoten and Kuehn have spent years in Afghanistan, much of it in the southern city of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban and still its ideological heartland.

They have conducted hundreds of interviews with Taliban members, officials, ordinary Afghans, as well as international experts on the movement. They edited “My Life With the Taliban,” the autobiography of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.

The present study is a condensation of what will become a book-length treatment of the subject. They found that when they began their research, they could not easily stop.

“Every tidbit in the study is a chapter in the book,” Kuehn said.

But all the talk is probably academic at this point, something that both van Linschoten and Kuehn acknowledge.

“The window of opportunity has been closing for years already,” van Linschoten said. “It would be speculation to guess whether it has now firmly slammed shut … I don't mean to say that a change would not be possible. There are things that the U.S. could change in terms of their political and military strategy, even though massive alterations don't seem likely.”

But if neither side is willing to budge, the future could be grim indeed, the authors said.

“In the end, past experience, the proven track record of regional actors and members of the insurgency and the Afghan government, and current U.S. policy suggest that a wide-ranging set of talks … is ultimately unrealistic as a possibility for the near-term Afghan political calendar. In that case, internationals would do well to begin preparing for possible scenarios which would involve the movement of large numbers of Afghans outside and inside the country, as well as escalated conflict environments.”

In other words, civil war.

But it is still not too late to examine what the international community is doing in Afghanistan, the authors said.

“Most aspects of current policies — especially our base assumptions — could benefit from us stopping to pause for a moment and reconsidering point by point what the evidence for each argument is,” van Linchoten said.

In this he echoes recent remarks by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is breaking away from the Obama administration’s position on Afghanistan.

As the senator told the Boston Globe over the weekend, "What I don't want is to be party to a policy that continues simply because it is there and in place … That would be like Vietnam. And that is what I am determined to try to prevent."