Talking to the Taliban will not solve our problems in Afghanistan

Aaron Ellis 10.34am

The debate over Afghanistan is like a boom & bust economy: repeatedly rocked by speculative financial bubbles that promise to end the war quickly.

As with financial bubbles, these get-peace-quick schemes show good returns initially but soon collapse under the weight of their own hype. Their investors - politicians, media pundits et al - are left feeling cheated, and so begin looking for the next big idea. The cycle continues.

In 2009, many ‘investors’ bought into population-centric counterinsurgency (P-COIN). That bubble burst when the following year when President Obama fired ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal, the architect of the P-COIN strategy in Afghanistan. If you’re looking for the proverbial get-peace-quick investment today, the smart money’s on talking to the Taliban.

Like bubbles before it, talking to the Taliban is not a solution to our Afghan problems. It will not achieve our stated objective of stopping al-Qa’ida from returning to the country and using it as a safe haven from which to plan attacks on the West.

David Cameron signed a strategic partnership with President Hamid Karzai in January, which states that both their governments:

"…recognise the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism, particularly from Al-Qaeda, and will strive unceasingly to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for any insurgent or terrorist group…"

The West’s strategy is two-fold. First, we will build up the country’s security forces so that they can expel al-Qa’ida if they try to return after our troops leave in 2014. Second, we will persuade the Taliban to break from the terrorist group by luring them into a power-sharing deal. The Prime Minister mentioned this during his press conference with President Karzai.

Regrettably, this strategy is conceptually flawed.

The first part assumes that Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in the 1990s because it was a defenceless failed state. The second part assumes that if the Taliban agree to keep al-Qa’ida out of the country then they will be able to impose their will on local powerbrokers in a way no Afghan government has been able to do since the Iron Amir in the nineteenth century.

Both assumptions are undermined by the Haqqani network, which is allegedly responsible for the attacks in Kabul on Sunday.

When Osama bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan in 1996, he did not flee to Afghanistan because it was a failed state; he fled there because of the protection offered by his close relationships with local powerbrokers like Jalaluddin Haqqani. Indeed, the grizzled guerrilla leader was crucial to al-Qa’ida, according to a paper published last July by West Point’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). Haqqani provided al-Qa’ida with space to develop.

The CTC paper warns that Haqqani’s network retains strong ties to al-Qa’ida, suggesting it is unlikely the former will meaningfully disengage. If we are to contemplate talking to the Taliban, we have to understand the important role the Haqqanis play in the war. They are the most militarily effective force among the insurgency and the only conduit for the Taliban to project power in the direction of Kabul and south-east Afghanistan.

It is likely that the Haqqani network orchestrated the attacks on Sunday, as well as similar attacks in the Afghan capital last September. These ‘spectaculars’, as they are called, are meant to convey the simple message that the Taliban (via the Haqqanis) can strike anywhere irrespective of how secure an area seems.

Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Afghanistan, captured the insurgents’ dynamic when he commented tartly: “The Taliban are very good as issuing statements, less good at fighting.”

The historian Thomas Barfield explains, and is worth quoting at length:

"…[t]hose Afghan leaders who would best succeed during the [twentieth] century employed a ‘Wizard of Oz’ strategy. They declared their governments all-powerful, but rarely risked testing that claim by implementing controversial policies.

Conversely, the leaders who were most prone to failure and state collapse were those who assumed that they possessed the power to do as they pleased, and then provoked opposition that their regimes proved incapable of suppressing.”

Afghanistan is perhaps the most complex conflict in history. It contains all the problems of modern warfare and is the sum of decades of internal strife and great power politics.

The downside to this is the difficulty in finding solutions. “In Afghanistan, things are rarely as they seem,” General McChrystal once said. “If you pull the lever, the outcome is not what you have been programmed to think.”

This applies to the many get-peace-quick schemes that have dominated the Afghan debate, whether in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or talking to the Taliban. All produce outcomes that their many ‘investors’ do not anticipate, so putting the war effort at risk.

If we truly want to achieve our stated objective in Afghanistan - a relatively stable  country that can block al-Qa’ida’s return - then our solutions need to be as nuanced as the war is complex.

And of course, more and more governments are concluding that this just isn’t worth the effort.

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