[Op-ed originally published in Dawn, March 2, 2010, here]
The US-led military coalition is going to lose the war in Afghanistan.
But, of course, there is losing, and then there is losing.
Let me qualify that first statement: The US-led coalition is certainly not going to win the war, militarily, in Afghanistan. In the very description of this engagement, some ground rules need to be laid for definitions. What constitutes victory (and defeat)? Is it the setting up of a vibrant Afghan democracy and the killing of every militant who ever bore arms? Or is it setting up a framework that vaguely resembles a functioning state under a weak central government before retreating to watch the whole mess descend into inevitable civil war? These are extremes, of course – there is a spectrum of possible, and, I hasten to stress, more likely, definitions in between.
Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US-led coalition cannot win the war against the Taliban outright as things stand. Indeed, cognizant of this, where several years ago policy makers in Washington DC were talking about talks with the ‘evil Taliban terrorists’ being simply out of the question, there is now the suggestion, from both military officials and civilian policy makers, that negotiations are not so much desirable as inevitable.
This is not just US President Obama’s hope and change approach to government (as opposed to former President Bush’s Shock and Awe doctrine) – this is down to the facts on the battlefield. Without compromise, there will be no peace; and there is no surrender on the cards in this war. The Afghan Taliban are too well entrenched (both militarily and socially), and Western forces are unable to gain, hold and secure significant ground across the country. In fact, their very presence is probably doing more to drive recruitment for the Taliban than any propaganda drive on the part of the insurgents.
And now there are more of them than ever. With the 30,000-strong US troop surge underway, and a new major offensive in the south of the country, ISAF is taking the fight back to the Taliban – so wither negotiations?
Well, if you’re going to negotiate, you’ve got to have somewhere to negotiate from. So while Taliban leaders periodically make statements indicating that lines of communication will remain entirely closed “as long as a single foreign soldier is on Afghan soil”, they must realise that the Western offensive is meant to show them the coalition is resolved not to simply let this fight go, to succumb to war fatigue within electorates back home, pack up and leave (the Dutch withdrawal notwithstanding). Winning, as noted earlier, is unlikely to be at either extreme, and the offensive in Helmand is designed to show the Taliban that they will not be able to simply outlast the coalition. Not without significant losses, at any rate.
Further, drone strikes against significant targets in FATA continue to take out militants involved in attacks on Afghan soil. This further weakens the Afghan Taliban’s position, but does not necessarily cripple it (given the structure of the organisation). All this serves to make negotiations a more desirable option than they perhaps presently are.
When such negotiations begin, of course, Pakistan will likely have a key role to play. The recent capture of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar by Pakistani authorities, even if it was inadvertent (as has been claimed from some quarters), indicates that Pakistan realises this and will not be sidelined in the stepped up offensive. By the same token, US officials of late have been seen to offer a few carrots in with the ‘do more’ sticks it periodically throws in Pakistan’s general direction.
The truth is, ultimately, the coalition will need Pakistan in order to act in what has become its traditional role as negotiating agent. The US will go through Pakistan and its intelligence agencies to access the so-called Quetta Shura – they have no other point of contact, after all.
Any treaty to end hostilities between the two sides will, of course, involve ceding ground on both sides. The Taliban will either have to be incorporated into the existing state setup, or given control entirely of provinces where it has historically held sway (primarily in the south, with the divide roughly following ethnic divisions).
In return for this, and the disengagement of ISAF soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban will have to end all hostilities against both Western and Afghan state targets. Further, any deal will also likely involve a disavowal of al-Qaeda, either allowing Western forces to target the organisation in Afghanistan, or, more likely, expecting the Afghan authorities to do so. This disavowal may not be as unlikely as it seems, seeing as how dispersed al-Qaeda already is across the globe, particularly in Arab states such as Yemen.
Pakistan, meanwhile, it should not be forgotten, will also have a stake in which direction these negotiations go. Any deal, since it will likely be brokered with substantial input from Islamabad, will have to take into account Pakistan’s fears regarding governance in the areas that may become Taliban-controlled, as these will be on the Pak-Afghan border. Negotiating any peace deal will be perhaps the trickiest for Pakistan, the middle man in this particular Mexican standoff.
There is, of course, one other, rather unlikely alternative: the coalition’s original plan. This involves training the Afghan National Army to the point where it is capable of securing the country and ensuring that the state has room to function. Given the fact that in order for this to work the ANA will have to wean popular Pashtun support away from the Taliban and induct members of that community into its ranks in numbers, this is unlikely. It is, after all, seen as part of a Western puppet regime.
And, even if that happens, as one London-based analyst quipped the other day, the best that would do is help to set up a “halfway decent military dictatorship” in Afghanistan. And in Pakistan, we know how that story goes.