Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hope for negotiations with the Taliban?

It’s very hard to assess what is going on in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan at this time. Swat has been handed over to the Taliban, a move that the Pakistanis represent as a device to bring the Taliban under government control. So far, there is no sign of it. At the same time the Pakistan military has crushed a group they claim to be the Taliban in Bajaur. The reports, however, indicate that those who were attacked were fairly benign while some of the most dangerous insurgent elements are still at large.

The most interesting development is the news, reported today by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times, that “preliminary discussions with the Taliban leadership were already under way” between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, even before Obama expressed an interest in negotiating with the Taliban. I was most struck by a sentence buried in the article: “The Taliban leadership council first approached the government about peace talks last year, a senior security adviser said, after suffering heavy battlefield casualties and seeing the election of a civilian, antimilitant government in Pakistan.” That the Taliban took the initiative suggests that they see, or at least at that time saw, limitations in what they could accomplish.

I am worried about the flawed arguments being presented about how hopeless the American cause is in Afghanistan. Those who offer such ideas generously quote Kipling’s colorful depictions of the Afghans in the nineteenth century and pointedly remind us that the Soviets were hopelessly bogged down in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires”, etc.; they believe all the clichés. These arguments forget that the British were unable to decide for sure whether they cared about establishing a serious presence in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. There was a Forward policy and then there was a retreat to more secure territory; and there was, in the case of the disastrous retreat by the British army in 1842, a plethora of flaws in leadership. The Soviets in more recent times were in a different position. True, they also were conflicted about the Afghanistan venture, but more importantly they were faced with an American and Saudi- supported insurgency emanating from Pakistan’s tribal territory. Lots of money and arms were supporting the Mujahedin struggle against the Soviets. And there was a huge refugee population from which to recruit holy warriors.

That’s not the situation now. The Taliban- Al Qaeda coalition are faced by a gradually improving Afghan army from the east, a frustrated (but again conflicted) military regime in Pakistan that finally acts like it’s fed up with the radical Islamists they protected for so many years – fed up at least for now – and with them is joined an American –NATO force that now finally, after years of neglect by the Bush administration, acts like it will make a serious commitment to the problem. So the Taliban-Al Qaeda coalition has to rely on corruption in Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the illicit drug industry to survive. It’s true that they have a firm grip on some places but if they are hemmed in by sufficient forces and if the nations interested in resolving the issue remain committed, then the Taliban-Al Qaeda coalition have reason to think about negotiating.

It seems to me that this could be a significant shift in the situation. One of the conditions in our modern world that many of us have noted is that the effective instruments of political activity of the past have shifted. State institutions are being seriously challenged by person-centered coalitions of the sort that were far more viable before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the practice of giving state institutions rights of sovereignty. The Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Middle East, and FARC and the drug cartels in Latin America are organizations for the exertion of influence that resemble the pre-Westphalia agreement. Even so, all of them earnestly want to grasp the reigns of state power. If and whenever one of them would, it would be an event of significance because it would seem to give legitimacy to such groups. Criminal gangs seem to control several of the states in Africa. And some of us wonder if in fact the coalition headed by Vladimir Putin in Russia is in fact a kind of criminal mafia.

In any case, the discussions with the Taliban seem promising. The Taliban demands in any deal seem eminently reasonable from here: an end to house searches and arrests, and the release of Taliban detainees from Afghan jails and the United States detention centers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base. There are also “other things” they want, unspecified in Gall’s article. But if we can believe what we read there is hope.

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