On Negotiating with the Taliban

BY Herschel Smith
8 years ago

This comment at the Small Wars Journal Blog by a British officer reminds us again of the myth that has sprung up around the narrative of Anbar.

… dialogue with Afghan tribes/groupings that provided the ‘freedom’ for them to accept localised security responsibility. Given the nature of some of these local forces it was this aspect of our tactical activity that I recall being the subject of friction between the Brit and US chains of command. Slightly ironic when one considers the subsequent endorsement of the ‘awakening’ in Al An bar and Baghdad. Clearly this latter course of action was driven by our own limited means and was fraught with risk. However, compromise is, I submit, an enduring tenet of COIN.

The irony is only apparent, and belongs to the realm of myth-telling concerning the U.S. experience in the Anbar Province. The one who believes that kinetic operations and force projection weren’t the pre-condition for the tribal awakening would do well to remember U.S. Marine deaths in Anbar – approximately 1000 between active duty and reserve.

No less than Colonel MacFarland gives us a synopsis of the tribal view upon his arrival in Ramadi.

“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”

But the sheiks were sitting on the fence.

They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.

The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.

“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.

“We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ “

Note that even initially the tribes didn’t like the presence of al Qaeda, but just as with Abu Ahmed in al-Qaid, who lost to al Qaeda until aided by U.S. Marines, they needed security and assistance along with a strong presence by U.S. forces in order for their resistance to be successful. The awakening didn’t materialize out of nothing, but rather had a cornerstone, without which the foundation wouldn’t have stood.

So how well does this compare with the situation in Afghanistan? First of all, the Taliban willingly approved of sanctuary for al Qaeda rather than fought against them prior to 9/11. Second, they willingly fight side-by-side with their fighters today against U.S. and NATO forces. Third, Operation Enduring Freedom is an “economy of force” campaign, which means that, as we were told by both Generals McNeill and McKiernan, we don’t have enough troops, and by definition, this means that we don’t have the force projection necessary to do the job of counterinsurgency.

The view is therefore clouded when the loss of the campaign is on the horizon. Senior British military leadership believes that the war is lost.

Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan has warned that the war against the Taliban cannot be won. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said the British public should not expect a “decisive military victory” but should be prepared for a possible deal with the Taliban.

His assessment followed the leaking of a memo from a French diplomat who claimed that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul, had told him the current strategy was “doomed to fail”.

Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan, said it was necessary to “lower our expectations”. He said: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

The brigadier added: “We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency . . . I don’t think we should expect that when we go there won’t be roaming bands of armed men in this part of the world. That would be unrealistic and probably incredible.”

Negotiating with the Taliban means giving power and authority to Mullah Omar, who paid Baitullah Mehsud $70,000 to mastermind attacks against diplomats of countries involved in the publication of sacrilegious cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, and who has also acknowledged the authority of Baitullah Mehsud over the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban).

Baitullah himself has global aspirations. “We will continue our struggle until foreign troops are thrown out. Then we will attack them in the US and Britain until they either accept Islam or agree to pay jazia (a tax in Islam for non-Muslims living in an Islamic state).”

So the difference between the Anbar awakening and the Taliban insurgency are stark, and serve to highlight the confusion of this British officer who doesn’t understand why we cannot negotiate with the Taliban. More troubling, however, is the acquiescence of General Petraeus to the notion of peace-making with the Taliban.

For Afghanistan, he spoke of increasing international forces and what he called “thickening” local forces as well, through greater political engagement of tribes and reconciliation with fighters who were not hard-core. There was also the need to engage countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to help with the Taliban, he said.

This must be done very carefully, since the force projection necessary to convince the tribes to reject extremism has not been implemented since the beginning of the campaign. We must do first things first. As for the mistaken effort to get the Saudis to collaborate and win the peace, the Taliban clearly aren’t interested. Why should they be, since they are winning? Negotiating in this instance is a sign of weakness. The Anbaris wanted security and patronage. We have nothing that the Taliban and al Qaeda want. The mistake is a simple one of category. We aren’t involved in a traditional counterinsurgency. We are waging a counterinsurgency against religious jihad. They want us.

  • roger29palms

    I have always thought that a large factor in our success in Iraq was the unacceptable behavior of Al Queda. I think a similiar situation will arise or has arisen with the Taliban and their austere view of how people should lead their lives.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Of course, but you’re helping me to make my point. Remember how secular the Anbaris were. Sheikh Risha himself was a chain smoker, and many Marines were able to stop in to homes during patrols and watch U.S. football and other such things on TV. Imposition of the austere AQ brand of extremism was foreign. Even so, the Anbaris needed force behind them to resist AQ, and they found it in the Marines.

    Afghanistan will be a different game altogether. Roads, power, air conditioning, infrastructure, and the many things that mark Iraq won’t matter. The Marines in Helmand haven’t had power for seven months where they are. There is none to be had. It’s already austere there.

    I’m not as sanguine as you about the possibilities, especially without force projection. There is no magic. Even in Anbar we didn’t recite some incantation to do COIN. Hard work was involved, and I’m afraid that we are tending towards the incantation version in Afghanistan rather than the hard work version.

  • roger29palms

    If the press is accurate, there appears to be signs of a backlash in Pakistan so the playing field is beginning to be prepped there. The comments reported earlier this year of Afghanis wanting security indicates that [most] humans everywhere have common wants and needs. As the Taliban and AQ are still stuck in high school, thinking they can cow the populace with threats and mayhem, I would say that one aspect of the battlefield’s prepation is playing into our hands.
    I recall reading last year a comment by an unnamed Marine captain to the effect that the sheiks in Anbar were businessmen and AQ was bad for business. That was the most cognizant comment I have read in all my
    reading about this situation.
    You are correct though, about the need for enough force, and I didn’t mean to sound like Mr.’s Chamberlain, O’bama, and the embarrassingly naive N. Pelosi and J. Carter. Firepower can alter one’s mindset. I believe it was in “Charlie Wilson’s War” that the statement was made that the anti-Russian fight was flagging until the stingers were introduced whereupon the mujahiden found new enthusiasm and went on to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan.

You are currently reading "On Negotiating with the Taliban", entry #1327 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Taliban,Tehrik-i-Taliban,The Anbar Narrative and was published October 5th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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