Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Surging and Talking

This op-ed suggests that the surge in Afghanistan is working--that there is significant pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan.  It also suggests that the Taliban have already calculated that whatever Obama decides next year, it is not going to mean a large or complete withdrawal.  Together, this means that this is the time to talk to the Taliban, as they are now in a position of increasing weakness.

Hmmm.  I do think that one does need to talk to the adversary, as civil wars end in two ways usually---decisive victory or a negotiated settlement and the former is simply not going to happen.  But, I find it a bit hard to believe that the Taliban is convinced of the resolve of the US.  American allies are unsure, particularly Karzai, so I am not so sure that the enemy is expecting the US to stick around for a long time.

On the other hand, other dynamics might be mattering:
Personal connections, which have been essential to the cohesion of the movement, have been broken by the deaths of many mid-ranking commanders and their replacement by younger and lesser-known successors. Regional and local commanders have become more independent and less likely to follow orders that go against their personal interests; for example, in the way that they raise and use money, often keeping it for themselves rather than passing it back to their leaders for redistribution. Following Afghan tradition, local commanders are building independent fiefs that they will be reluctant to relinquish.
This is good news and bad.  Fragmentation of the Taliban would make it somewhat more likely that pieces of it will turn and settle with the government, especially if they are mostly interested in being bought off.  But as the new generation of scholarship on civil war indicates, the more actors one has to bargain with, the longer the war lasts.

Of course, the real question is what would the Taliban elements need in an settlement?  Slots in government?  Just payoffs?  Just hunks of Afghanistan?  The devil is more than in just the details but in the major pieces of any agreement: what happens to the foreigners (NATO and AQ)? how is power alloted? who gets to keep what weapons?  How is the government altered.

None of these are easy questions, and, as someone at a conference I was at this weekend remarked, these kinds of negotiations take years.  Will the US and its allies be able to keep up the pressure, if such pressure is already sufficient?  The article asserts that the current level of pressure is sufficient.  I am not so sure, and I am more doubtful that it can be maintained.

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