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