First Published: 2008-12-01

 
The West Rethinks its Afghan War Strategy
 

This year has seen the worst violence in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. At least 4,000 have been killed, about a third of them civilians. It is surely time to bring the killing to an end. And recent developments may bring new strategies to end it, says Patrick Seale.

 

Middle East Online





A new strategy for the war in Afghanistan is now being actively discussed among Western political and military leaders. In essence it is that there is no military solution to the conflict, and that the United States and its allies must instead seek a national reconciliation, involving the Taliban -- so long as Al-Qaeda is not part of the deal.



General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander on the ground, has been quoted as saying, “It’s going to be a political outcome.” He now takes care to distinguish between insurgents (meaning the Taliban) and terrorists (meaning al-Qaeda.) When asked recently for his views about the nature of the future Afghan government, he replied: “I don’t care, so long as Al-Qaeda is not part of it.”



Clearly, the notion of ‘victory’ in Afghanistan is being quietly re-defined to mean reconciliation, economic development and nation-building rather than a military defeat of the Taliban.



The French have taken the lead in adding a further vital element to the equation. While supporting the view that, in the absence of a military solution, national reconciliation is essential, the French are pressing for a regional settlement, involving Afghanistan’s neighbours.



French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has called a meeting to discuss the Afghan problem in Paris on 14 December, with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. India has also been invited, but has not yet confirmed its attendance. Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, will be there, together with representatives of the United States, Russia, and Britain.



All these developments are clear signs of a change of thinking. An early signal came from no less than U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- whom President- elect Barack Obama has decided to keep at his post for another year. Speaking on Al-Jazeera TV on October 10, he said that the United States was ready for a reconciliation with the Taliban in order to achieve peace, but that any reconciliation would not include Al-Qaeda.



Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has himself been seeking a deal with the Taliban, even offering them representation in his government. He is known to have asked Saudi Arabia for help in brokering a deal. He even went so far as to offer protection to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. Moreover, he has repeatedly protested against poorly-aimed U.S. raids which have killed large numbers of Afghan civilians. “We have no power to stop the [American] planes,” he angrily told a news conference in Kabul on 27 November. “But if we could… we would stop them and bring them down.”



Another influential voice in favour of a dialogue with the Taliban is that of Owais Ghani, Governor of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. He has long argued that the Taliban are a local, essentially Pashtun, movement, concerned above all to defend their traditions, their clans and their families against foreign interference. These limited goals, he says, should not be confused with Al-Qaeda’s global jihad agenda.



Two or three important hurdles, however, remain to be cleared before a deal can be struck. First, the Taliban must themselves be persuaded of the benefits of a dialogue. For the moment, they seem to believe, with some justice, that the war is going their way. Not only have they increased their presence in the south and east, but they have also mounted major operations close to Kabul.



No doubt, they sense that America’s NATO allies have no appetite for committing further troops to what looks increasingly like an unwinnable war. Speaking on Al-Jazeera on 17 November, a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will continue its jihad until foreign forces are out of Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is independent.”



Another imponderable is the new Centcom Commander, General David Petraeus, who is now engaged in a major review of Afghan strategy at his Tampa, Florida, headquarters. Petraeus can claim that his strategy in Iraq -- the U.S. troop ‘surge’, together with the mobilization against Al-Qaeda of close to 100,000 Sunni tribal mercenaries -- produced a dramatic reduction in violence and prepared the ground for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), recently passed by the Iraqi Parliament.



Petraeus may believe that he can achieve another such ‘victory’ in Afghanistan to enhance his already considerable prestige, and perhaps lay the foundation for a future political career -- even, as rumoured, a Presidential bid in 2012 or 2016.



A third hurdle may be President-elect Obama himself. During his election campaign, he pledged to take the war to Al-Qaeda’s tribal sanctuaries in Pakistan, with or without the agreement of the Islamabad government. It must be hoped that he will be persuaded that any such strategy would be a grave mistake, inflaming Pashtun passions and destabilizing Pakistan.



This year has seen the worst violence in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. At least 4,000 have been killed, about a third of them civilians. It is surely time to bring the killing to an end.





Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.



Copyright © 2008 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global

 

Gunmen kidnap 17 Turks in Iraq capital

US carries out secret drone campaign in Syria

Turkey police raid anti-Erdogan media group after British reporters jailed

Shebab attack Somalia AU base

Syria war takes its toll on heritage riches

Turkey government says it 'had no role' in reporters' arrest

IS claims Tripoli car bomb near oil firm

Dispute with Israel government keeps Christian schools shut

Kuwait charges 24 'linked to Iran' with plotting attacks

New Turkey caretaker government holds first meeting

Dozens of Lebanon protesters occupy environment ministry

Will Erdogan's political gamble solve Turkey poll impasse?

UN confirms Palmyra temple destroyed

Over 10,000 Icelanders ready to welcome Syrians

Libya loyalist forces battle IS jihadists in Benghazi

South Sudan peace deal in jeopardy

Pressure builds on Europe as refugee crisis exposes splits

Israel confirms jail for Druze ex-MP over visit to Syria

Egypt much delayed elections to start on October 17

Palmyra temple appears ‘largely intact’ after ISIS blast

Turkey to offer cash rewards for tips on ‘terrorists’

Yemen children's hospital on the verge of shutting down

In gruesome video, ISIS shows burning alive of Iraq Shiite fighters

Four years after famine, situation in Somalia remains alarming

A year on, recapture of Yazidi hub remains a distant prospect

IS jihadists move closer than ever to central Damascus

EU leaders call for action to defend migrants’ 'dignity'

IS blows up parts of famed Palmyra temple

Deadly fire at housing complex of Aramco in Saudi Arabia

In historic first, Saudi Arabia allows women to run in local elections

Israel repels protesters with tear gas at separation barrier in West Bank

ISIS brutality in Syria: Over 90 people executed in one month

Bashir to visit China despite international arrest warrant

Egypt summons British envoy in row over Al-Jazeera trial

Yemen war seeks to stop ‘Iran expansion’ in Arab region

Lebanon protesters to government: Meet our demands of face escalation

Calls for action on refugee crisis mount after Austrian tragedy

Kuwait lawmaker describes Iran as 'true enemy' of Gulf Arabs

Two French journalists charged with bid to blackmail Morocco King

Algeria detains former intelligence chief

Kurdish forces free seven Iraq villages from clasps of ISIS

Toll in Libya shipwreck tragedy rises to 111

Egypt court hands Al-Jazeera reporters three years in prison

UN to host new round of Libya peace talks next week

US names ‘First Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs’