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Winning the Peace in Afghanistan
Reports that progress has been made in peace talks between US and Taliban representatives in Qatar has been met with skepticism by many observers – including some retired senior military officers - voicing concerns that the US is “cutting and running” from its Afghanistan involvement. It is far too early to draw that conclusion, particularly since neither the State or Defense Departments have ever articulated a clearly defined end state for the conflict. It is also too early to draw conclusions about an agreement that has not yet been reached, but it is not too early to think about how to wage war by other means against the Taliban once some kind of peace agreement has been reached. Helping the Afghan government win the peace should be our next role in that troubled nation.
What We Know to Date
Reports from both sides have been contradictory, but here is what appears to be the consensus on general agreement between the two sides. First, the Taliban would agree not to support international radical terror groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS operating on Afghan soil. However, the degree to which they would actively go to eliminate such groups remains unclear. It does appear that the Taliban would support some kind of international counterterrorism mechanism.
Second, the United States - and presumably NATO - would withdraw military forces at some point after an agreement is reached.
Third, the Kabul government would be a party to any final agreement and retain control over the army and national police; but some degree of local law (and presumably judiciary) enforcement would be exercised by the Taliban in areas that its forces control.
Finally, there would be some form of internationally supervised nation-wide elections once the agreement is in place. It has not been specifically stated as yet, but it is fair to presume that the Taliban candidates would be on the ballot in all areas, but it would also mean that candidates opposed to the Taliban would be on the ballot in areas under Talib control. There are huge challenges related to that, and it is unlikely it will really happen in the near term.
Since the negotiations are still ongoing, we can only make assumptions regarding the issues that might be associated with the final outcome, but long experience with dealing with the Taliban and the Kabul government should reasonably include the following:
Assumption 1: The Taliban will continue to attempt a total governmental takeover as their long-range plan by military or political means or by some combination of both. Double dealing and treachery are long standing Afghan traditions and are not limited to the Taliban. We can also assume that other tribal factions, particularly members of the old northern alliance (loosely called warlords), will also be doing the same thing.
Assumption 2: If (or when) conflict resumes, the government will be able to retain control over the major urban areas and those provinces and districts accessible by the road network. Some of senior retired American military officers think this assumption in invalid. The Afghan security forces are much maligned for having lost ground since the end of direct US and NATO combat operations, and they still have a long way to go before they are capable of controlling the whole country, but they are not terminally incompetent. The army and national police currently lack the ability to resupply their forces in the mountainous regions that are Taliban strongholds, but they will not fold in the way the South Vietnamese did in 1975; the majority of Afghans remain anti-Taliban and will support the security forces.
Assumption 3. Any peace agreement will likely involve a “ceasefire in place” the will mean a de facto “one nation, two systems” outcome for at least the near term. This is merely a recognition of what already exists in the country.
Assumption 4. The Kabul government will still be open to charges of inefficiency and corruption while the same deficiencies on the part of the Taliban will remain opaque. The areas that the Taliban control will likely become no-go zones for objective journalists while the government has to be transparent. It will be a major post-agreement job for the Afghan government and its American allies to advertise the fact that the Taliban has the same problems.
Post-American Taliban Vulnerabilities
The Taliban’s mission statement for nearly two decades has been to rid Afghanistan of “foreign occupiers”. If a peace settlement results in an American withdrawal, they will need a new mission. That will probably be to rid the country of the American puppet government in Kabul and replace it with the kind of theocracy that ruled the country during the last period of Taliban supremacy. The primary problem with that approach is that a majority of Afghans have no desire to see that happen. The current government struggles with corruption and inefficiency, but if public opinion polls are anywhere near correct, the majority prefers democracy -however imperfect- to a return to Taliban rule.
In addition, the Taliban are not the squeaky-clean students of the Koran that their name implies.
The top leadership probably remains relatively committed to the ideals of Mullah Omar and the others founders who started out by fighting the Soviets, but local leaders have found out that former Navy Secretary John Lehman was right when he observed that; “power corrupts, and absolute power is really neat”. When US Marine Special Operations and Italian Alpine troops drove the Taliban out of the valley where I was a State Department civilian advisor from 2011-12, the Taliban had been in control for a number of years and the stories we heard were different from Taliban propaganda of fair judicial treatment and honest government that Taliban propaganda portrays.
The Talibs had apparently initially lived up to the hype, but after a year or so, graft and corruption began to sneak in. Wealthy landowners who could afford bribes (baksheesh) began getting better court findings and local Talib leaders seemed more intent on the poppy trade than they did in governance. Admittedly, we had the same problems with Kabul government appointees; and government justice was much slower as many local judges and prosecutors were illiterate and couldn’t read the laws they were enforcing. Corruption and a culture of baksheesh is endemic in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. Putting a veneer of Sharia goes just so far.
Finally, there are many “Talibans” in Afghanistan and in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Territories where their fighters and leaders find sanctuary when the heat is on across the border. The hard-core veterans of the Soviet wars who represent the on-paper leadership of the movement are probably fairly true to Mullah Omar’s original vision. They are the folks we are talking to in Qatar, but they are probably a minority in the loose confederation that is opposing the Kabul government and its western allies. Some offshoots- particularly the Haqqani Network- are criminal organizations loosely aligned with the Taliban who will see no profit in peace. Others are local drug gangs or opportunists who use the Taliban name as a cover for their independent business activities; with the exception of the drug trade, IED production is one of the most lucrative industries in Afghanistan. The amount of real control that the senior Talib leadership has over these groups post-cease fire is questionable. War pays, and many sub groups will likely engage in territorial disputes with each other and the Kabul government regardless of what the central Taliban leadership decrees. All of this provides potential opportunities for the central government if it is smart enough to exploit them.
A Non-Kinetic Strategy. There is as much opportunity for the Afghan government in an American/NATO withdrawal as there are problems. Any American withdrawal should have the caveat that we can return militarily if the Taliban forces renew offensive operations. Once the shooting stops, the Kabul government will be dealing with an organization whose main stated rationale no longer exists. This happened to the Lebanese Hezbollah, after the Israelis withdrew completely from Lebanon in 2000. Like Winston Churchill at the end of World War II, the Hezbollah hoped that their war record would garner them nation-wide gratitude at the polls. It never happened. Non-Shiite Lebanese rejected them at the ballot box outside Hezbollah dominated Shiite districts. Hezbollah managed to lure the Israelis into an ill-conceived invasion in 2006, and did well militarily, but the glory gained from that was again fleeting and its adventures in supporting the Assad regime in Syria has done nothing to endear Hezbollah to its fellow Lebanese, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. The Taliban are likely to suffer from the “what have you done for me today” syndrome in any free election.
All politics are local and, if the politicians in Kabul are smart, they will exploit the inevitable challenges that come with the day-to-day drudgery of governance in Taliban controlled areas. Through the judicious use of money, politicians in Kabul can support Talib politicians who are open to working with the government. The Kabul government can also exploit the inevitable power struggles at the local and provincial levels that accompany peacetime governance.
If local Taliban leaders use repression to silence dissent in any given district, the Kabul government would be well advised to covertly support local dissidents in turning the tables on the Taliban officials. This will be particularly effective if they try to suppress local and provincial elections. By giving financial support to secularist candidates in local elections, the Taliban will be forced to choose between cancelling elections that they don’t think they can win or face the possibility of loss of power in many traditional strongholds. When the Taliban held national power, dissidents Talib rule had to choose between submission or leaving the country. Post-cease fire, citizens can merely vote with their feet and move to areas not under Talib control from which they will likely work hard to undermine the mullah- led local theocracy.
As they watch their support base dwindle the Talib leadership will then be forced to choose between doubling down on repression or reforming themselves; this will exacerbate existing fissures among Taliban factions. What will have changed is that local Talib rulers will find that without the Americans to kick around anymore, they will have to compete economically with a government in Kabul that -although far from perfect- will likely compete favorably with Fifteenth Century agrarianism in in all but the most conservative rural areas.
None of this will cure the myriad ills that afflict Afghanistan in the near-term, but it will offer the county choices in the free market of ideas. In the long-run; the bright city lights of places like Kabul, Herat, and Mazar will lure many young people away from a lifetime of illiteracy, tending sheep, and planting melons or poppies.
It is very possible -if not likely- that some elements of what we identify as Taliban will not recognize any cease-fire. This will put the central Talib leadership in the unenviable position of having to conduct their own version of counterinsurgency to bring the dissidents back in the line. If one or more of these groups asks for help from foreign jihadists such as ISIS or al Qaeda, it will put the Talib senior leadership into a real pickle.
How America Can Help
As Afghanistan moves away from kinetic and into political warfare, there will be opportunities for the United States to help with the non-military elements of national power. To be sure, we should continue help the security forces to improve in training and readiness. I have long advocated doing much of the training in the United States which would be cheaper and more effective in the long run than the present system of trying to train an army in the middle of a fight. The Afghan air force can continue to be trained in both flying skills and maintenance by civilian contractors. Military assistance aside, there is much the United States can do with the three non-military instruments of national power -those being economic, information, and Diplomatic- help the Afghan Government win the peace.
Economic. Assisting the Afghan government in providing funding to support Taliban sub-groups who are willing to work with the government and drive wedges between them and the central movement would be of great value in weakening the Taliban as a nation-wide political force. Gaining support from local Taliban leaders to build roads through territory they control would strengthen the hand of local leaders who would gain political power by delivering economic growth through new jobs and the provision of goods and services not now available in much of the remote mountainous terrain controlled by the Taliban.
Information. Getting out the message that there are alternatives to harsh Sharia law, the repression of music, dancing, kite flying and anything else that might remotely be fun has been a challenge in remote rural areas controlled by the Taliban where radio and cell towers have been destroyed and their rebuilding discouraged. Leaflet campaigns are difficult as rural illiteracy can run as high as eighty percent. The United States could help by funding and Afghanistan-wide radio network supported by airborne radio-relay aircraft that can beam signals to the most remote mountain regions. Because many areas do not have electricity, we could help by funding the supplying or those regions with small hand-powered radio receivers. The Taliban will resist such devices in areas that they control, but smuggling, air drops and other innovative means will get the product through. Nothing creates a demand for an item like telling Afghans they can’t have it.
Diplomatic. Drumming up support for the Afghan government’s legitimacy among the international community is vital if the nation’s imperfect democracy is to survive and improve. International support and NGO involvement will only work if the government appears to be making legitimate efforts to eliminate corruption and improve human rights performance in the areas controlled by Kabul. The greatest thing that could happen to the Taliban would be a coup by a military or warlord strong man. American diplomatic engagement will be key in discouraging such an eventuality.
We need to be realistic about goals and expected outcomes. The best we can hope for in the near term is the cadre of an Afghan democracy that can eventually extend its sway to include the majority of the country, but that is a very long-range goal. In the near-term, Afghanistan may have to live with a one country two systems approach.
A hard core, but substantial, minority of the Muslim world remains dedicated to the type of fundamentalist Islamic approach of theocratic rule that the Taliban advocates and enforces. Afghanistan is not alone in suffering that problem. It will not go away overnight. In addition, rural tribal Afghans like to fight. For twenty years western military presence has given them a reason to fight under the Taliban banner. Absent us they are very likely to fight each other. That is bad news for the Taliban.