There’s been a lot of talk lately about opening negotiations with the Taliban—or at least trying to pull in the “reconcilables” while continuing to kill the “unreconcilables”—creating a lot of back and forth about counterinsurgency tactics and procedures in places like the Small Wars Journal and Abu Muquwama blogs.
On Sunday, Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, upped the ante considerably by daring Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader hiding somewhere in northwest Pakistan, to come to Kabul for negotiations.
Speaking of Mr. Omar, Mr. Karzai said, “If I hear from him that he is prepared to come to Afghanistan or negotiate for peace, I, as president of Afghanistan, will go to any length providing protection.”
Considering that the U.S. government has placed a $10 million bounty on the one-eyed cleric’s head, Karzai also challenged U.S. and NATO forces, adding “If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices: remove me, or leave if they disagree.”
As a fellow defense blogger might say, Karzai is sounding pretty thugged out.
(The Taliban have reportedly rejected the offer, though lets not forget that just because guys like Omar are rejecting talks, doesn't mean all Taliban speak with one voice on this. There are many Talibans, each with different agendas.)
While insurgencies can only be settled by striking a political compromise between the insurgent and the government forces—violence is down in Iraq primarily due to the fact that we bought off and co-opted al Qaeda’s Sunni triggermen through the Sons of Iraq program—not everyone is on board with talking to the Taliban just yet.
I recently spoke with Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught at the counterinsurgency school in Kabul, and who is currently a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who thinks that negotiating with the Taliban right now is a bad idea. “If we open negotiations with the Taliban right now, we will be doing so from a position of weakness,” he says. “The trick for the next administration is to take the tactical and operational and strategic steps to get us into a position of strength where negotiation is an option.”
John Nagl, a former army Lieutenant Colonel also at the Center for a New American Security, told me that in the near term, what he sees as most crucial for finding a solution to the Afghan mess is the need for “confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan” that could be very useful in allowing Pakistan to focus more exclusively “on the Taliban insurgency in its midst and the continuing problem of al Qaeda. None of these things by itself is going to turn the tide. A combination of all of them with additional resources has the potential to be enormously helpful.”
He cautioned that negotiations with the Taliban should not move forward until American, Afghan and NATO forces regained some control over the battlefield, while holding out hope for “a more effective information operations operation in Afghanistan to separate the insurgents from their support in the population.”
Fick and Nagl aren't spitting into the wind on this one -- their point of view seems to be the one gaining the most traction among military thinkers. Joseph Collins, a retired Army Colonel who teaches strategy at the National War College recently wrote on the Small Wars Journal site that if the Afghan government sits down to negotiate with the Taliban now, “it does so from a position of increasing weakness, and diminished strength. To increase the prospects for Kabul’s success in negotiation, we will have to reverse that condition.”
Collins submits that “we can not kill our way to victory in Afghanistan,” but can, however, “create a more pliable enemy, one eager to negotiate, if we defeat Taliban offensive operations and threaten their sanctuaries.”
The problem is, if the Taliban continue to remain as elusive as they are deadly, when does it become time to start talking? And won't they approach the idea of negotiations with the same calculus of power and weakness? The winter months have traditionally been quiet in Afghanistan, as Taliban move to their mountain redoubts to wait for better "fighting weather" in the spring. So if we move no closer to a political solution before the snows melt next year, things are guaranteed to get very hot, very quickly.