Did Obama Lay the Path to Afghanistan Peace Talks?
In 2012, I was talking to the American and Afghan commanders on our forward operating base in western Afghanistan where I was the senior American civilian advisor. I observed “you guys ban dogs, sex, and booze (referring to the military’s General Order Number One which prohibits all three). The Taliban don’t like sex, alcohol and dogs either; what are you fighting about?” The question was only partly tongue in cheek, and given President Obama’s recent decision to keep 8400 troops in Afghanistan for the remainder of his term; it is still relevant. The recent ISIS bombing attack in Kabul that killed scores should give Afghans on both sides of the conflict pause to ask what the fighting is really about.
Until September 11th 2001, we considered the Taliban regime that was running Afghanistan at the time to be distasteful, but their religious approach to Sharia Law was not all that dissimilar to that of our Saudi allies; there was no hue and cry for a Taliban ouster. It was not until we discovered that the 9/11 attacks were conceived and organized from al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan that we decided that the Taliban had to be deposed to deny such sanctuaries to al Qaeda in the future. Fifteen years later, our rationale is the same, and we believe that propping up the marginally democratic regime in Kabul still requires our presence.
The Taliban for their part demand that all foreign military forces leave the country, conveniently ignoring the fact that their former leader’s invitation to foreign jihadists was what started the war in the first place. Perhaps it is time for all parties to the conflict to revisit the causes for war and chart a possible path to peace. ISIS is as much a threat to the Taliban as it is to the Afghan government.
At the present time, we are at an impasse. The Taliban are not strong enough to take the major cities such as Kabul, Herat, and Mazar al Sharif. Likewise, Afghan government forces, even with American airpower and commando support, cannot take back the Pashtun majority border areas that still may shelter foreign jihadists. Ironically, the only people who can accomplish our original aim of getting rid of the foreign jihadists are the Taliban themselves. It would seem to me that there is room for compromise here.
The fly in the ointment is money. The reality is that U.S. military presence has become a “for profit” enterprise for senior Afghans on both sides of the conflict. American money encourages corruption that helps grease skids among politicians, generals, and warlords; while the war gives cover for the drug trade which enriches senior Taliban operatives, corrupt police, and the above mentioned warlords. Peace does not have a lot of senior Afghan advocates on either side of the battle lines. Without us, the war will be a lot less profitable for Afghan elites on both sides.
That does not mean that there is no room for a peace settlement that calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces; that is because both sides could claim some form of victory. By leaving a residual American force in the country, President Obama has given his successor a bargaining chip for future negotiations. There will still be fighting, but the opponents will be different.
What might such an agreement look like? It would be one that gives the Taliban status of a legal political movement in return for their help in expelling foreign jihadists. In turn, we would agree to the withdrawal of American and NATO forces. That is about the best the Taliban can hope for. They will never be able to retake the major cities or the northern and western lands controlled by the warlords of the old Northern alliance. However, it is entirely possible that many of the Pashtun districts, perhaps several provinces, of the southern border regions would vote for Taliban style Sharia rule.
The Afghan government would no doubt demand some kind of assurance of American support if the Taliban renege on the agreement and that is something we are capable of promising. The irony here is that the Taliban might not object to the possibility of an American return. The presence that the Islamic State has established in the country will likely not go quietly into the night. American support to roust the Islamists might eventually be welcomed by the anti-foreign Taliban. Americans may despise the Taliban but ISIS makes them look like choirboys.