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“Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground“

(Image: Counterpoint Press)

The notion of American exceptionalism is as old as the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the first analyst to describe the United States’ significant differences from European states. He pointed to its love affair with liberty, its deep-seated commercialism, its revolutionary birth as a “new nation” and its zeal for technological modernization sitting alongside widespread religiosity.

The concept was quickly taken up by American politicians to highlight what they saw as their country’s manifest destiny and its special role as the model for an envious world. Over time dozens of other writers, American and foreign, added to the list of America’s unique attributes.

Almost invariably they focused on American life within its shores. Yet there is one important “exception” that relates to foreign policy. The United States has had the good fortune to crown almost every war it has fought with victory. The First World War ended with Germany’s defeat, the second with two enemies’ unconditional surrender. America’s Civil War ended with the South’s defeat and surrender.

Only two wars came to a halt with something less than victory, and they are not remembered in the United States with any enthusiasm. In Korea the belligerents reached an armistice that was never followed by full-scale talks, as a result of which the two Korean states still face each other today across a tense demilitarized zone without a peace treaty. The Vietnam War concluded after five years of negotiations in Paris, but the peace accords were violated, mainly by North Vietnam, which sent its forces into the south across the cease-fire lines. Two years after the Paris accords, America’s South Vietnamese allies were defeated, leaving U.S. diplomats to make a humiliating escape by helicopter from the roof of the Saigon embassy in full view of the cameras.

This tarnished history of peace talks and cease-fire agreements appears to have imbued U.S. decision makers and the American electorate with a deep prejudice against them. Americans tend to see negotiations as defeatist, unnecessary and prone to disaster because the other side will always obstruct or cheat. Since freedom must not be compromised, the notion that a war to safeguard and spread liberty should give way to talks sounds weak and unworthy of a nation that is the world’s sole superpower and whose sacred self-appointed mission is to prevail.

The U.S. experience runs against that of the rest of the world, where it is generally acknowledged that a war may end more quickly and at less cost through political compromise and agreement. The belligerents on all sides realize that victory is impossible, the war is essentially a stalemate and the demands for which they took up arms are not going to be achieved in full. It may take years of bloodshed and destruction to reach this judgment, but in the end the hard truth takes hold that something less than the other side’s defeat will have to be accepted.

That was true in recent times in El Salvador as well as Bosnia, in Sudan as well as Northern Ireland. The British, in particular, have a long history of being forced to make deals with resistance groups, guerrilla armies and opposition politicians whom they had once detained, in India, Cyprus, Kenya and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, to name just a few.

Afghanistan has become the latest test of the proposition that civil wars are more likely to end in long-term peace if there is an inclusive political settlement. Thirty-five years of fighting have seen several changes of regime in Kabul but no end to war. No group has been able to take control of the whole country and douse the embers of armed resistance for the long term. They have always flared up again.

Efforts by the Kremlin to seek a political deal with the mujahedin in the 1980s foundered on their intransigence, backed by Pakistan and the United States. Similar efforts by the Najibullah regime suffered the same fate. After the Taliban retreat in 2001, the Bonn conference of Afghan leaders was meant to usher in an era of peace. It came to nothing, in large part because the Taliban were excluded from negotiations, and the short-lived peace dividend was not spread to the Pashtun.

Whether the Obama administration is prepared to put serious backing behind peace talks between the Kabul government and the insurgents and take a direct role itself in ending the country’s civil war has become the biggest U.S. foreign policy issue of 2011 and 2012. It is likely to play a major role in Obama’s reelection campaign. A majority of Americans have turned against the war, and they want to know how soon U.S. troops are going to be withdrawn and whether it will be done with honor. Taking a longer perspective Afghans want to know whether the withdrawal will bring them the peace that eluded them when the Russians left. The dramatic attack on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound by U.S. Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011, and the death of the iconic al Qaeda leader strengthened the pressure for an early end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It gave Americans a sense that an important battle for justice had been won and that to continue the fight against al Qaeda required action in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. President Karzai made the same point emphatically a few hours after bin Laden’s killing was announced. The al Qaeda leader’s discovery in Pakistan showed the West’s entire military strategy was wrong, Karzai said. Speaking in front of a packed hall in his palace in Kabul, he declared, “Year after year, day after day, we have said the fighting against terrorism is not in the villages of Afghanistan, not among the poor people of Afghanistan. The fight against terrorism is in safe havens. It proves that Afghanistan was right.”

In light of the historic difference between British and U.S. attitudes to negotiating with colonial resistance movements, it was not a surprise that the first senior Western politician to propose talks with the Taliban was David Miliband, Britain’s then foreign secretary. He deliberately chose a venue in the United States to air the proposal. “The idea of political engagement with those who would directly or indirectly attack our troops is difficult,” he said in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 2010. “We have no more right to betray our own values than those of the Afghan people who pray that the Taliban never come back. But dialogue is not appeasement and [giving the Taliban] political space is not the same as veto power or domination.”

At the time, Miliband’s argument received a frosty reception in Washington. Clinton was on record as a strong critic of the Taliban’s treatment of women and was seen as a hawk on the issue of the Taliban’s future. In London, Miliband’s views were also shelved by his colleagues. They were not taken up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown or by his successor, David Cameron, who won the May 2010 election. The new British Government echoed the line, pushed by Obama and Karzai for several months, that any political solution to the Afghan war had to be based on the Afghan Government’s reintegration and reconciliation program, which offered incentives for Taliban leaders and fighters, either individually or in groups, to lay down their arms and return to civilian life. Launched at an international conference in London in January 2010, the program was a relaunch, or indeed a re-relaunch of a program that had been repeatedly tried since the end of Taliban rule in 2001 and with minimal success. It amounted to little more than an invitation to surrender.

Up to 2007, only twelve of the 142 senior Taliban figures who had been put on the United Nations sanctions list as people subject to travel bans and asset freezes had applied for amnesty. They included men like Arsala Rahmani, the former Taliban minister for Islamic affairs who returned to Kabul and was appointed by Karzai as a senator (see Chapter Six for more on his views). Another was Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, who had spent four years in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo. Important though these men had been when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, neither of them, nor any of the other ten who came back to Kabul, were involved in the post-2001 insurgency. The reintegration program also failed to attract more than a handful of active middle-level Taliban commanders. So there was no reason to expect that the new reintegration program, announced with great fanfare at the London conference in 2010, would have better success.

In theory, there was supposed to be a difference between reintegration and reconciliation. The former offered incentives such as vocational training to young men or help for community projects in a village if foot soldiers or field commanders from that village left the Taliban, put down their arms and went home. (The government did not want to pay individual Taliban for stopping fighting since this would look like rewarding people for having been insurgents.) The latter was geared to more senior people whose opposition to the Karzai government rested on political disagreement. In practice both parts of the policy amounted to the same thing. Like reintegration, reconciliation was a one-sided offer from the government to the insurgents. There was no direct promise that the government was prepared to make political concessions to the insurgents. Indeed, in diplomatic circles at the time, there was much talk of a distinction between so-called reconcilables and irreconcilables. Some Taliban, it was argued, could be won to the government side. Others like Mullah Omar and the core of the last Taliban government, now in refuge in Quetta, were considered to be too extreme to be worth approaching. Western analysts compared the reconciliation strategy to the successful U.S. effort led by Petraeus when he was U.S. commander in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, where the armed Sunni resistance split into pro– and anti–al Qaeda forces and Washington helped to widen the split by making cash payments to the latter group, known as al Sahwa or the Awakening. American officials continued to repeat the mantra that they knew there had to be a political solution to the war. But it was a hollow claim. “Talking to the Taliban” was not intended as a genuine move toward negotiations. It was a weapon of war and a counterinsurgency tool, designed to undermine the Taliban by encouraging defections and breaking the movement into more easily defeatable fragments.

As I went through the diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and helped the rest of the Guardian team select which ones to highlight, I found a mass of evidence that the reconciliation strategy in Afghanistan was a device to split the Taliban and that the U.S. and Afghan governments’ dominant strategy was to step up pressure on the Taliban. A message from the U.S. embassy in Kabul to Washington in January 2010 summarized a conversation between Karzai and Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, shortly before the London conference. Karzai told Holbrooke that previous efforts to persuade Taliban leaders to defect had not worked. The U.S. and Afghan governments must avoid “the same vicious cycle of trial, failure, trial, partial success,” he said. What was vitally needed, he insisted, was that Pakistan be brought on board. As long as it gave the top Taliban leaders safe haven, there was no chance of success.

Karzai revealed in another cable that he had recently approached Saudi Arabia for cash to pay lower-level Taliban commanders to switch sides. The Saudi Government responded favorably and offered to give defectors free trips for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Barnett Rubin, the U.S. Afghan expert who had become an adviser to Holbrooke and attended the meeting with Holbrooke, approved the idea, saying it would “offer a strong religious motivation and undercut the Taliban. . . . Holbrooke assured Karzai that Afghanistan’s current reintegration draft policy has the backing of the U.S. and seems to have strong Gulf buy-in, which Karzai flagged as crucial to psychologically undermining the Taliban. The U.S. would not prevent this from happening as it had in the past, Holbrooke said; on the contrary we plan to help fund the plan.”

A few days earlier, the Afghan president was explicit about surrender. He told visiting U.S. senators that reconciliation was not a matter of negotiations with the Taliban but of getting them to give up, according to another cable from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. To reinforce the point to his American partners, he mentioned the American Civil War as a useful analogy. “Karzai said he could refer to American history and the ‘lenient’ terms extended to members of the Confederate Army, including General Robert E. Lee, when they surrendered,” a cable reported. Reconciliation would not just be offered to Taliban foot soldiers but to senior leaders who gave up. But there was no question of offering reconciliation to Mullah Omar, the cable reported him as saying.

Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, had doubts about the plan, according to a secret cable he sent to Washington. But these did not include criticism of its basic thrust of rejecting negotiations with the top Taliban. Rather, his doubts focused on the reaction of non-Pashtuns. The powerful Tajik and Uzbek leaders in Karzai’s government who had always been fiercely anti-Taliban needed to be convinced that Karzai was not selling out to the Taliban. There must be “buyin from non-Pashtuns” who might otherwise be suspicious of what might look like a separate peace between Karzai, a Pashtun, and the largely Pashtun Taliban, Eikenberry’s cable said. He warned the Afghan Government that the United States would withhold aid money for the reintegration strategy if Kabul stepped over Washington’s “red lines.”

The leaked cables showed that Obama’s most senior advisers were initially united on the issue of not negotiating with top Taliban. One message summarized a conversation Holbrooke had with the Indian foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, on January 18, 2010. “There will be no power-sharing with elements of the Taliban,” Holbrooke stressed. He explained this was because of their “unpalatable social programs” and their links with al Qaeda.

General Petraeus, who had taken charge of U.S. Central Command after leaving Iraq, was also shown to be a firm opponent of any deal with Mullah Omar. As the architect of the surge of extra U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 he prided himself on having reduced Sunni violence. The claim was inflated because there were several reasons, unconnected to the surge, which explained the lessening of Sunni-Shia tensions and the splits among Sunni tribal, religious and political leaders between supporters and opponents of al Qaeda in Iraq. But, as the focus switched to Afghanistan, Petraeus continued to fight the last war, like many another general in history. He hoped to split the Taliban just as he imagined he had split the Sunni resistance in Iraq.

In January 2009, according to a leaked cable, Petraeus in his capacity as Centcom commander visited Kazakhstan for a meeting with its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. When Nazarbayev suggested it would be highly dangerous to take reconciliation so far as to bring the Taliban into the Afghan Government, Petraeus agreed. “We have no illusion that Mullah Omar could ever join the government,” he told the Kazakh leader. The White House confirmed the point in March 2009 in its White Paper, “A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan”: “Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s hard core that have aligned themselves with al Qaeda are not reconcilable and we cannot make a deal that includes them.”

Was this also the view of Afghans? With the Taliban revival continuing to gain strength, I had my first chance to test the mood in Kabul in March 2010. This time I was in the Afghan capital for the BBC rather than the Guardian. The BBC World Service Trust had invited me to take three weeks out to give professional training to some of their Afghan journalists. The team of roughly forty-five scriptwriters and broadcasters included almost twenty women. Working closely with them gave me the opportunity to hear what educated Afghan women felt about the controversial idea of having their government negotiate with the Taliban. They were the people who had suffered most from the Taliban’s brutal form of male chauvinism.

During the first weeks after the Taliban came to power in Kabul in 1996, I had heard a surprising number of women say they welcomed the Taliban victory because their families were at last safe from the shells and rockets that rained down during the civil war. This more than made up for the Taliban’s repression of women, they argued. Many changed their views later, but at the time the calculus of security-versus-rights was coming down in favor of the former.

My interviews in Kabul in March 2010 suggested a similar calculus was emerging again. It was a remarkable change since 2007 when the Taliban comeback was still young and defeating them was the watchword of the day. There had been a tectonic shift in Afghanistan’s public mood since then. It was prompted by a host of factors: growing disappointment with Western governments and the ineffectiveness of billions of dollars in aid that seemed to go nowhere except into the bank accounts of foreign consultants or local politicians; a sense that foreigners were deliberately prolonging the new civil war; grief and despair over the mounting toll of civilian casualties, many caused by U.S. air strikes; rising nationalist anger and a feeling of humiliation; and a desire to return to an Afghan consensus in which Afghans found their own solutions.

Over two afternoons, I sat down over tea with six women journalists from the group I was training. In varying degrees they all favored negotiations.

Courtesy of Counterpoint Press.

© 2011 by Jonathan Steele. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

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