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Talking With Taliban a Tricky Proposition

  • Gary Thomas

President Obama has indicated the United States might be willing to consider talks with at least some moderate insurgent elements in Afghanistan. The United States used a similar approach, with some success, in Iraq. But trying to replicate the Iraq strategy in Afghanistan is a tricky proposition.

Recent statements from Obama administration officials, including the president himself, indicate the U.S. is considering the idea of negotiating with moderate elements of the Afghan insurgency. The idea is to replicate the so-called Sunni Awakening in Iraq's Anbar province, where the U.S. exploited simmering resentment of al-Qaida to turn the tribes against the radical insurgents.

Speaking at a news conference at NATO headquarters Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden said the situation in Afghanistan is different than that of Iraq, but not so different that such a strategy could not be tried.

"The idea that every Sunni was a supporter - every Sunni insurgent was a supporter of al-Qaida - was simply not true, simply not true. The same principle pertains here. Whether or not it will bear as much fruit remains to be seen. There is only one way, and that is to engage, engage in the process," he said.

But analyst Kamran Bokhari, of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says there is a crucial difference between playing the tribal card in Iraq and trying the same thing in Afghanistan.

"There is a huge contrast between the jihadists we were fighting in Iraq and the jihadists that we are fighting in Afghanistan," he said. "The jihadists in Iraq were the outsiders. Contrast that with Afghanistan. The main jihadists are bona-fide Afghan nationals. And therefore talking to the tribes is not going to yield a whole lot."

Even using the term the Taliban is misleading. The Taliban is not a single monolithic entity with central control, say analysts. And it is not even the same group, for the most part, that sheltered al-Qaida when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Most analysts view it more as a movement of various local groups with the common aim of imposing Islamic-based rule.

Former EU Special Representative to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell says there are basically three broad groups: ordinary Afghans disillusioned with poor governance and corruption; the old-school under Mullah Omar, who led the ousted Taliban government; and an even more fanatical school of what might be called neo-Taliban.

"They are known as the younger, new Taliban, many of whom, particularly those working in the [Jalaluddin] Haqqani network, are perceived as being even more radical and more, let us call it bloodthirsty, than their elders," said Vendrell.

Defense Intelligence Agency Director General Michael Maples noted Taliban attacks in 2008 were up by 55 percent over the previous year. The Afghan Taliban has tried to increase the pressure on U.S. and NATO forces even as the Obama administration prepares to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan.

The hazy groups and alliances of what collectively comprise the Taliban make it difficult to determine just who the U.S. and the Afghan government would reach out to.

Vice President Biden says nearly three-quarters of the insurgents are mercenaries, not ideologues.

"Five percent of the Taliban is incorrigible, not susceptible to anything except being defeated. Another 25 percent or so are not quite sure, in my view, of the intensity of their commitment to the insurgency. And roughly 70 percent are involved because of the money, because of them getting paid," he said.

Kamran Bokhari says Taliban elements have shown no inclination to negotiate.

"To be able to negotiate with the other side, at a bare minimum the other side has to have an incentive to talk to you. Given the way the insurgency has unfolded and evolved and enlarged, the Taliban have no reason to talk. They are not under any pressure," said Bokhari.

Veteran diplomat Francesc Vendrell believes before negotiating with Taliban elements, the West should first try to deal with the root causes of disillusionment in Afghanistan - poor government, corruption, and lack of economic opportunity.

"In Europe and also here increasingly in the U.S., they are talking as if we had basically lost it and the main question was talking to the Taliban and settling to some degree on their terms, whereas we still have not tried - and I think it would be worth trying for a year, at least, or two - to address the causes as to why the Taliban has become relatively popular, or at least relatively accepted," said Vendrell.

Another international conference on Afghanistan is to be held March 31 at the Hague, with Iran among the invited governments.

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