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    South Asia
     May 9, 2012


More signs of openings in the Afghan war
By Brian M Downing

This week brought news that the United States was releasing a number of Taliban figures of mid-to-high standing in the insurgent group's political and military apparatus.

This is a good sign of efforts to bring about meaningful peace talks, which were thought to have been on hold following the recent Koran burnings and atrocity incidents. The US has made a quid and is awaiting a quo from the Taliban, if it has not already been arranged. This is how negotiations begin and wars end.

The prisoner release comes on the heels of reports of war weariness in the Taliban and the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) by the US and Afghanistan that allows a US presence in the country for another 12 years.

The SPA dispels the notion that the US is worn down and would

 

leave Afghanistan. On the contrary, US forces will remain for many years after the "withdrawal" of 2014, though in significantly reduced numbers. They will provide reaction forces and air power for Afghan National Army forces charged with the limited task of continuing the stalemated war in the south and east.

After 10 years of war since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, the US faces no significant domestic opposition to the Afghan conflict. Polls show large numbers of opponents but this has not translated into meaningful debate in congress or among the US public. Casualties are light by historical measures and are suffered by a narrow strata in American society where military service and attendant losses are more acceptable than in the mainstream.

Insurgents, however, are enduring much higher casualties from costly ground attacks on fortified positions, unseen drones and snipers, and nightly raids by special forces teams. The rough terrain and inhospitable elements also take a toll. Further, men serving in insurgent bands are away from their homes and unable to contribute to household and village economies.

The SPA and prisoner release will not be welcomed by the Pakistani military. It has sought a settlement on terms shaped if not dictated by its interests: the US and India out; Pakistani client groups in. But by dealing with the US, the Taliban may be distancing itself from its longtime supporters in the Pakistani army. The interests of the two entities do not always coincide.

The Taliban may judge northern Afghans and their Indian benefactors as objectionable on religious and political grounds, but as too solidly established to ever defeat, regardless of the urgings of the Pakistani military. The Taliban know they were never able to vanquish the northerners; they held out with the support of India, Iran, Russia and several Central Asian republics - support that today is even firmer and now bolstered by the US as the SPA indicates. Pakistan must accept this; the Taliban may already have.

Pakistan will be of only limited usefulness in a postwar environment. The Taliban know that their years in power brought little development and that this failure led to insurgencies against them and the dearth of domestic support once the Northern Alliance swept south with US help in 2001.

Pakistan cannot develop even its own economy and faces a demographic bulge even more ominous than the ones in Egypt and Libya. The Pakistani generals see postwar Afghanistan as a colony of sorts from which resources are extracted with little regard for locals.

Pakistan is poor, unstable, and increasingly distrusted in the region and around the world. It can be of only limited help in postwar development of the mineralogical wealth that old Soviet and recent US geological surveys have found. The Taliban will have to look elsewhere for aid and the most likely suppliers of help are already at work in northern Afghanistan. That region is Pakistan's enemy but the Taliban may be seeing northerners as old rivals with whom they should reconcile. Otherwise, they will have to fight them - ruthlessly, unflaggingly, but perhaps unsuccessfully.

The Pakistani military's options are limited. It can arrest settlement-minded Taliban leaders ensconced in Pakistan, as it did two years ago with Mullah Baradar, who are thought to be pursuing talks. The Pakistani military may also use loyal client groups such as the Haqqani network and the more fiery Taliban commanders to wreak havoc in Afghanistan with a wave of bombings and assassinations in order to derail any talks.

But it was such bombings and assassinations over the past two years that caused Karzai to turn against Pakistan and sign the SPA with the US. Another wave could increase the distance between the Pakistani army and the Taliban, perhaps bringing the latter closer to the Pakistani Taliban. Further, it could underscore the growing international recognition of Pakistan's ties to militant groups such as the Haqqanis, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which carried out the Mumbai attack of 2008.

The Pakistani military may opt, if only reluctantly and after delay, to side with the peacemaking process in order get its optimal deal: limiting Indian influence in the north, but not ending it; sharing in Central Asian commerce, but not dominating it.

Insurgent groups, including the Taliban, are expected to begin a new spring offensive. Indeed, an increase in improvised explosive devices and skirmishes indicates it began a month ago. The Taliban may opt to see their offensive through before embarking on serious negotiations, but there may be signals over the next few weeks of openness to talks.

Further declarations against international jihadi groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and al-Qaeda would be welcome. The release of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban prisoner for almost three years now, would be a promising and appropriate response to the release of Taliban commanders.

Judging Taliban actions is difficult. Though there is a high council atop a command structure, local commanders are given leeway and some are hot-blooded and less amenable to negotiations than others. These are the younger ones who have been promoted, perhaps reluctantly and too swiftly, after their predecessors were removed by drones and night raids. And actions by the Haqqanis in eastern cities might not be sanctioned by the Taliban council; they might signal the wrath of the Pakistani army, the Haqqanis' venerable benefactor.

The US, too, can send signals - or rather send more signals than the unmistakable one of releasing Taliban commanders. It can reduce the number of night raids, which are presently averaging about 40 a night, [1] lower the number of drones and sniper teams covering the Afghan countryside, and seek out local truces, which have long been little known parts of the war but which now may be building blocks in a negotiated settlement.

Note
1 Ahmed Rashid suggests reducing night raids in his Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (New York: Viking, 2012), pp. 208-9.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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