The 'Reconcilable' Taliban

Here is a proposition that is bound to cut deep into the national psyche: Should the United States seek to negotiate with some of the same people who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden prior to the Sept. 11 attacks?

The President, in part at the urging of our European allies, is exploring an entente with some of the 'reconcilable' Taliban. It is important to note that the Taliban is not one unified group but an umbrella group of numerous Islamic groups that are loosely allied. Is it possible to peel some these groups away? Yes, because we already have. More accurately, the British have. In late 2007, the Afghan government with British help approached a group of moderate Taliban and encourage them to lay down their arms and back the Karzai government. From Global Security:

For years, Afghan officials including President Hamid Karzai have extended an olive branch to moderate Taliban to lay down their arms and back the government.

But their overtures have been largely rejected -- until now.

On January 7, the Afghan government announced that a former Taliban commander who switched sides before a battle last month to secure Musa Qala, a Taliban-held southern town, had been named the government's top official there.

By making a deal with Mullah Abdul Salaam, the new district chief of Musa Qala, the government appears to have taken a key step toward changing the face of Afghan politics. And Kabul is hoping the move will encourage more defections by moderate Taliban.

From his headquarters in Musa Qala today, Mullah Abdul Salaam told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that his appointment is already fostering reconciliation between the government and moderate Taliban.

"There were many problems before. There was no trust before. There was no one you could trust," he said. "People didn't know whom to contact. Now they are talking with me. They give me assurance and I give them assurances. There were many problems before. There was no trust before."

Mullah Abdul Salaam was once the Taliban's governor in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan -- the birthplace of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, as well as Karzai.

Militia Fighters

Now, the powerful local commander brings some 300 militia fighters to the side of the Afghan government in a strategic part of Helmand Province. More importantly, his allegiance to Kabul helps extend the central government's authority into an area seen as a bastion of popular support for the Taliban.

Christopher Langton, who studies Afghanistan at London's International Institute For Strategic Studies, says it is a particularly important area for President Karzai to stabilize.

"If it is stabilized, all sorts of follow-on could occur in other parts of the country when people see a successful outcome [in Helmand Province]," Langton says.

Langton says the stabilization of Musa Qala and the fertile farmland of the nearby Sangin Valley would allow repairs and upgrades to the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam. That, in turn, would allow the government to provide more irrigation, water, and electricity to as many as 2 million people in southern Afghanistan.

That would signal to Afghans elsewhere that their living conditions can be improved if they cooperate with the Afghan government. Langton says it also would allow the international community to be seen as an agent of positive change in Afghanistan rather than as an invader and occupier.

Taliban fighters captured Musa Qala in February 2007 after the collapse of a British-backed peace deal with militants in the area. Just before last month's NATO-led offensive to recapture the town, delegates from Kabul met with Mullah Abdul Salaam and won promises for the allegiance of his Alizai tribe. Since then, other tribal leaders in Helmand Province have supported Salaam's appointment as Musa Qala district chief.

So to begin with what the President is proposing has already met with some success by the Afghans themselves. According to the New York Times, Mullah Salaam "remains ostensibly loyal to NATO forces, and some British officials mention him as an example of how a campaign to woo Taliban district commanders might work."

Noting the war in Afghanistan had deteriorated over the last couple of years, the President is opening the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to elements of the Taliban as the British have already proved can be done. Here's the relevant portion from the New York Times interview:

Q. Mr. President, we need to turn it to foreign policy. I know we have a review going on right now about Afghanistan policy, but right now can you tell us, are we winning in Afghanistan?

A. No. I think that we are - we are doing an extraordinary job, or let me say it this way: Our troops are doing an extraordinary job in a very difficult situation. But you've seen conditions deteriorate over the last couple of years. The Taliban is bolder than it was. I think the - in the southern regions of the country, you're seeing them attack in ways that we have not seen previously. The national government still has not gained the confidence of the Afghan people. And so its going to be critical for us to not only, get through these national elections to stabilize the security situation, but we've got to recast our policy so that our military, diplomatic and development goals are all aligned to ensure that al Qaeda and extremists that would do us harm don't have the kinds of safe havens that allow them to operate.

At the heart of a new Afghanistan policy is going to be a smarter Pakistan policy. As long as you've got safe havens in these border regions that the Pakistani government can't control or reach, in effective ways, we're going to continue to see vulnerability on the Afghan side of the border. And so it's very important for us to reach out to the Pakistani government, and work with them more effectively.

Q. Do you see a time when you might be willing to reach out to more moderate elements of the Taliban, to try to peel them away, towards reconciliation?

A. I don't want to pre-judge the review that's currently taking place. If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region. But the situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, so figuring all that out is going to be a much more of a challenge.

There's nothing in the above that is Earth-shattering unless common sense is Earth-shattering. The President recognizes that Afghanistan is complex, that solving Afghanistan requires a "smarter" Pakistan policy, that solutions in Afghanistan requires recasting "our policy so that our military, diplomatic and development goals are all aligned." It is clear that a military track alone is not going to stabilize the country. The President does seem to recognize this. A strategic review is underway and we will know more after it is completed.

As per the reconcilable Taliban, according to Al Jazeera the group that is being approached is the Hizb-i-Islami that is led by the former Prime Minister of the country Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Here's a profile of the group from Global Security:

The Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) was initially one of the most disciplined of the guerrilla groups that fought against Soviet occupation. Even though Hezb-i-Islami received millions of dollars worth of military and financial aid from the United States, they still failed to liberate Afghanistan from the Communists. The major Afghan political factions are largely based on the former resistance organizations. Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) and President Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) were bitter rivals for political influence in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) initially supported the Hizb-i-Islami under Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to dislodge the Rabbani government. Pakistan feared that an exclusively non-Pashtun government of President B. Rabbani would lead Afghanistan's Pashtuns to revive the demand for Pashtunistan.

Hekmatyar was friendly with Osama bin Laden when the latter was participating in the war against the Soviets. Bin Laden was linked with the Mujahedin group of Professor Rasul Sayyaf, who allegedly was a Wahhabi. The groups led by Hekmatyar and by Sayyaf had little in common, but their two leaders were allegedly close to a blind Egyptian cleric -- Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman - who was imprisoned in 1995 for his part in a conspiracy to destroy several New York City landmarks.

It seems that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a bit of a free agent. At any rate, there's also this:

The important Taliban "Peshawar Shura" is headquartered in Pakistan's North West Frontier province. The militias headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani are fighting US forces alongside the Taliban. Hekmatyar operates in the tribal areas of Dir and Bajur, while Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in Waziristan. Local warlords in northeastern Kapisa province belonging to veteran Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami conducted guerrilla operations against NATO troops, along with.

In 2008, Hekmatyar apparently opened the door to talks with the Government of Afghanistan, in part through a spring 2008 letter addressed to President Karzai. Some suggest that there may be some potential for drawing Hekmatyar away from the insurgent fight and into a constructive role. Others caution that his reputation for Islamic extremism and human rights abuses call into question the likelihood and advisability of any reconciliation with him.

If the Hezb-i-Islami are opening the door to talks, what's wrong with talking?

Tags: Afghanistan, President Obama, Taliban, US Foreign Policy (all tags)



better questions to ask

You're asking the wrong question.

You should be asking what are the U.S. options.

What are the pros and cons of leaving Afghanistan?

What is the U.S. vision for a completed mission in Afghanistan? With whom does the United States need to make deals to achieve this vision? How likely is it to succeed? What are the pros and cons of this scenario?

What if the United States continues to pursue roughly the same strategy and tactics in Afghanistan? What will be the likely results?

A few weeks ago I attend a presentation by two liberal academics with expertise in Afghanistan. They described a grim situation, but neither wanted the U.S. military to get out without first doing positive stuff. They both agreed that the United States should negotiated with parts of the Taliban (both agreed the United States should not negotiate with al Qaeda, which they felt strongly was distinct).

I think both these academics had their heads in the clouds. To make the mission successful they wanted the U.S. military to do things it's no going to do.

I think the U.S. military should withdraw from Afghanistan and focus on making a just and lasting peace between India, Pakistan and Kashmir.

But if you don't like withdrawing from Afghanistan and you don't like negotiating with parts of the Taliban, the United States is pretty much stuck doing the same as was done under Bush (with some possible tinkering with the troop levels).

by Carl Nyberg 2009-03-08 06:14AM | 0 recs
Charlie Wilson's War

is an excellent film to see if you want some historical perspective on Afghanistan.

It was also a very good film.

Its a heartbreaking situation there.

We really have been dropping the ball in Afghanistan.

by architek 2009-03-08 08:04AM | 0 recs
Re: better questions to ask

I hope you realize that this is one post of many that is asking these questions. Not every post can cover every single component of what is a very complex issue.

by Charles Lemos 2009-03-08 09:35AM | 0 recs
Re: better questions to ask

I'm concerned that the obsession with stamping out Islamic extremism is providing a poor way of understanding U.S. interests in the subcontinent reasons.

How 'bout you do a post on why Americans obsess over radical Islam?

by Carl Nyberg 2009-03-08 10:04AM | 0 recs
Ugh, Hekmatyar is worse than

bin Laden.  There had better be an overwhelming political benefit to even contemplate a deal.

by Geekesque 2009-03-08 06:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Ugh, Hekmatyar is worse than

What are you for? What policy do you support?

by Carl Nyberg 2009-03-08 06:57AM | 0 recs
Read up on Hekmatyar.

He is known for three things:

1)  Being a bloodthirsty monster of the highest order;

2)  Being virulently a anti-American and anti-Western Islamist;


3)  Being a chronic backstabber--there is not a single party with whom he has cut a deal that he did not later betray.

I'd rather see us cut a deal with Mullah Omar.

by Geekesque 2009-03-08 07:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Read up on Hekmatyar.

It's interesting to note that he lived in Tehran for a time and apparently the Iranians kicked him out under pressure from the US and the West. The big plus is that he commands a rather sizable component of the militias.

by Charles Lemos 2009-03-08 09:37AM | 0 recs
He's never been able to deliver anything

however.  The only guarantee with this guy is that he's going to screw us if we cut a deal with him.

by Geekesque 2009-03-08 10:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Read up on Hekmatyar.

I see Hekmatyar as roughly equivalent to Muqtada al-Sadr in terms of the political context.  It's possible there are issues on which we can reach a mutually beneficial detente, but it's really not feasible for him to be our major partner in terms of stabilizing the country, under any scenario.

by Steve M 2009-03-08 11:21AM | 0 recs

That's a fair assessment.

by Charles Lemos 2009-03-08 11:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Read up on Hekmatyar.

Is Mullah Omar willing to negotiate?

by Carl Nyberg 2009-03-08 10:07AM | 0 recs


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