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Afghanistan: The Real Lesson of the Taliban Imposter (Cohen)

Michael Cohen writes at Democracy Arsenal:

Yesterday's revelation in the New York Times that one of the Taliban officials with whom the Afghan government was meeting in peace talks with was actually an impostor is the proverbial hanging curve ball of Afghan-related snark.

Sure I could write a post about how this goes to show that the US and NATO --- even after 9 years of war --- have little understanding of the enemy with whom it's fighting. Even more directly, I could write a post about how this goes to show that the Petraeus/ISAF supposition that kinetic action was bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table was bunk.

As Josh Foust sums up the situation well, "The leadership of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] doesn't seem to have any idea what it's doing, who it's talking to, and (probably) who it is really killing."

This story is yet one more reason to conclude that the time has come for the United States to trim its sails in Afghanistan, more toward military de-escalation and lay the groundwork for a long-term political settlement. Indeed, this excellent new report from the folks at CAP [Center for American Progress] makes precisely this point - it's the best report I've seen to date about an alternative course for the war in Afghanistan. 

The problem, however, it that this conclusion may seem a bit counter-intuitive. After all, isn't the obvious response to the "impostor" story that it just shows the folly of trying to negotiate with the Taliban - or even identify moderate elements within the movement? 

Actually yes! But that doesn't mean political reconciliation is the wrong course. It means the way we are going about it is all wrong.

Instead of relying on ISAF to move political negotiations forward or reach out to Taliban moderates (as it is they seem far more geared toward sowing discontent rather than laying the groundwork for reconciliation) this incident speaks to the need for an outside and independent mediator to facilitate talks, a political framework that acknowledges the legitimate aspirations of the Taliban insurgency and above all the centrality of a political, not military solution, for ending the war in Afghanistan.

It seems that the entire ISAF political strategy (and it's hard to even use those words) is predicated on not finding a workable political solution, but dividing and conquering the enemy or pounding them into submission. In short, negotiations are just another way to "win" in Afghanistan. The conflict is still seen by top policymakers as a black and white struggle between good guys and bad guys.

What is lacking is a recognition that the Taliban (who are certainly bad guys) will likely have a long-term role to play in Afghanistan's future - and that this is something that all sides in the conflict, particularly the US, are going to have to accept.  Now in an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn't play much of any role in Afghanistan's future - but we don't live in an ideal world and we are far past the point where it's even possible for the US to dictate the terms of Afghanistan's future. We have neither the time nor the resources nor the inclination nor the knowledge to do such a thing.

So instead of trying to use only sticks to bring the Taliban to the table the US and NATO may have to utilize a few carrots; namely confidence-building measures like releasing Taliban prisoners, seeking out local cease fires and ending JSOC assassinations of Taliban commanders. These moves will have to be reciprocated in some measure by the Taliban; but these measures can hopefully begin to seed the groundwork for actual political negotiations and the process of reconciliation.

Again, I don't consider this an ideal solution, but it seems more clear than ever that the US and NATO is flailing around for a solution to this war without any clear sense of what they want to achieve and even if they did, how they might get here. Ad hoc and under the radar screen political negotiations are not the way to go here; formalized talks with a non-American mediator very well might be.

Afghanistan demands a political solution --- and American interests are not served by continued conflict. This latest incident will likely lead some to the conclusion that there is no hope for reconciliation. But that view is dangerous and wrong. There is only one path to the exit ramp for the United States; and it won't be found down the barrel of a gun.

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References (2)

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