WASHINGTON - The beginning of political talks between the Afghan government and
the Taliban, revealed by press accounts this week, is likely to deepen the rift
that has just erupted in public between the United States and Britain over the
US commitment to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
According to a French diplomatic cable leaked to a French magazine last week,
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government is looking for an exit strategy
from Afghanistan rather than an endless war, and it sees a US escalation of the
war as an alternative to a political settlement rather than as supporting such
The first meetings between the two sides were held in Saudi Arabia in the
presence of Saudi King Abdullah from September 24
to 27, as reported by CNN's Nic Robertson from London on Tuesday. Eleven
Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials and a representative of
independent former mujahideen commander Gulfadin Hekmatyar participated in the
meetings, according to Robertson.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith of the British command in Afghanistan
enthusiastically welcomed such talks. He was quoted by The Sunday Times of
London as saying, "We want to change the nature of the debate from one where
disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done
If the Taliban were prepared to talk about a political settlement, said
Carleton-Smith, "that's precisely the sort of the progress that concludes
insurgencies like this."
The George W Bush administration, however, was evidently taken by surprise by
news of the Afghan peace talks and decidedly cool toward them. One US official
told The Washington Times that it was unclear that the meetings in Saudi Arabia
presage government peace talks with the Taliban. The implication was that the
administration would not welcome such talks.
A US defense official in Afghanistan told the paper the Bush administration was
"surprised" it had not been informed about the meeting in advance by the Afghan
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his way to discuss Afghanistan with North
Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers in Budapest, made it clear that
the Bush administration supports talks only for the purposes of attracting
individual leaders to leave the Taliban and join the government. "What is
important is detaching those who are reconcilable and who are willing to be
part of the future of the country from those who are irreconcilable,"he said.
Gates said he drew line at talks with the head of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad
However, representatives of the Taliban leader are apparently involved in the
talks, and President Hamid Karzai is committed to going well beyond the tactic
of appealing to individual Taliban figures.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in a news conference on October
4 that resolution of the conflict required a "political settlement with the
Taliban". He added that such a settlement would come only "after Taliban's
acceptance of the Afghan constitution and the peaceful rotation of power by
The Afghan talks come against the backdrop of a Bush administration decision to
send 8,000 more US troops to Afghanistan next year, and the expressed desire of
the US commander, General David D McKiernan, for yet another 15,000 combat and
support troops. Both Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate
John McCain have said they would increase US troop strength in Afghanistan.
Obama has said he would send troops now scheduled to remain in Iraq until next
summer to Afghanistan as an urgent priority, whereas McCain has not said when
or how he would increase the troop level.
Such a US troop increase is exactly what the British fear, however. The British
ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, was quoted in a diplomatic
cable leaked to the French investigative magazine Le Canard Enchaine last week
as telling the French deputy ambassador that the US presidential candidates
"must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan".
In the French diplomatic report of the September 2 conversation, Cowper-Coles
is reported as saying that an increase in foreign troop strength in Afghanistan
would only exacerbate the overall political problem in Afghanistan.
The report has the ambassador saying that such an increase "would identify us
even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets" for
Cowper-Coles is quoted as saying foreign forces are the "lifeline"of the Afghan
regime and that additional forces would "slow down and complicate a possible
emergence from the crisis".
In an obvious reference to the intention to rely on higher levels of military
force, Cowper-Coles said US strategy in Afghanistan "is destined to fail".
Cowper-Coles is reported to have put much of the blame for the deterioration of
the situation in Afghanistan on the Karzai government. "The security situation
is getting worse,"the report quoted him as saying. "So is corruption, and the
government had lost all trust."
The report makes it clear that the British want to withdraw all their troops
from Afghanistan within five to 10 years. Cowper-Coles is said to have
suggested that the only way to do so is through the emergence of what he called
an "acceptable dictator".
The British foreign office has denied that the report reflected the policy of
the government itself. Nevertheless, statements by Brigadier Carleton-Smith,
the senior British commander in Afghanistan, last week, underlined the gulf
between US and British views on Afghanistan.
"We're not going to win this war," said Carleton-Smith, according to The Sunday
Times of London on September 28. Carleton-Smith, commander of an air assault
brigade, has completed two tours in Afghanistan. He suggested that foreign
troops would and should leave Afghanistan without having defeated the
insurgency. "We may leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural
insurgency," he said.
Like Cowper-Coles, Carleton-Smith suggested that the real problem for the
coalition was not military but political. "This struggle is more down to the
credibility of the Afghan government than the threat from the Taliban," he
When Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as British prime minister in June 2007,
British officials concluded that the Taliban were too deeply rooted to be
defeated militarily, according to a report in The Guardian last October. The
Brown government decided to pursue a strategy of courting "moderate" Taliban
leaders and fighters who were believed to be motivated more by tribal
obligation than jihadi ideology.
That idea was in line with US strategy. Now, however, both Karzai and the
British have moved beyond that to a policy of negotiating directly and
officially with the Taliban. For the British it appears to be part of an exit
strategy that is not shared by Washington.
Defense Secretary Gates responded to Carleton-Smith's remarks Tuesday by
reiterating the official US view that additional forces are needed in
Afghanistan and implying that the British's officer's views are "defeatist".
Gates said there "certainly is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate
the opportunity to be successful in the long run".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US
national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,was published in