Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part III

I am glad you spent time talking about the Taliban, because that is what I want to explore in this post. In my view, here is the key to ending the war: Karzai and his associates must be able to distinguish the career members from the hardcore members of the Taliban and then co-opt the former into normal Afghan life. The idea of spending so much blood treasure only in the end to reach this point might sound unpalatable to many, and such a reaction is understandable. But keep in mind that there is a stark difference between the careerists and the hardcore-types.

The career members look at membership in the Taliban as employment, an avenue to gain money and material items, and a way to keep busy. They are not committed jihadis. And they do not hold especially strong beliefs about religion and politics. Ultimately, what this means is that Kabul can bargain with these members. If offered the right price, they will flip their allegiance and merge into mainstream Afghan society and politics. Viewed in this way, the careerists are akin to gangsters and street thugs. Believing that they have few paths available to experience self-empowerment and escape poverty, they turn to a life of crime and violence.

By contrast, the hardcore Taliban are true-believers in their mission. They believe their actions are right and just. Their politico-religious worldview is entrenched and inflexible. There is virtually no carrot that can dissuade them from contesting the government and employing violence. Bargaining with the hardcore means giving in to their demands.

Separating the careerists from the hardcore can offer several benefits. A smaller group, speaking for a reduced number of people, can eat at the legitimacy of the Taliban’s words and actions, which, in turn, might staunch the flow of people seeking to join the group. Second, a downsized Taliban might be easier to monitor and control via military action, police efforts, and intelligence work. Third, if enough Taliban members break ranks, putting down their arms and reintegrating into Afghan life, Kabul will have a chance to create the kind of governing institutions and political outputs (e.g., domestic political goods) that everyone wants to see.

The crucial question, though, is this: Will Pakistan allow all of this to happen? As you correctly pointed out, Pakistan views the Taliban as an important political and paramilitary tool, so important that it might be unwilling to let the group shrink in size and capabilities. Relatedly, a recent New York Times article pointed out that several high level Taliban commanders have been assassinated, leaving the group worried and on edge, likely by Pakistan. As mentioned in the article, one guess is that Pakistan frowned upon these Taliban leaders broaching the idea of negotiations with Kabul and made them pay for it.

(But there are other guesses as well, including the notion that Pakistan is now more active in clamping down on militants and terrorists on its soil. This is probably wishful thinking. My view is that Pakistan’s moves are part of a cyclical game that it has played with the U.S. over the last ten years. We cannot say that Pakistan has never taken action against the Taliban; that assertion would be demonstrably false. Here is what happens: The U.S. pleads for Pakistan to take a tougher stance against the Taliban, AQ, and other militants. In response, Pakistan complies, arresting, imprisoning, and killing these undesirables. The U.S. is pleased, and aid continues to flow to Pakistan’s military. But then Pakistan–probably with heavy influence from its military–takes its foot off the pedal and eases up, letting its militant minions run free and wild. So in the end, Pakistan does just enough to get the U.S. off its back. But U.S. officials are left thinking they are not getting enough back for its buck.)

Regardless, Karzai must do all he can to suck the life out of the Taliban. And attempting to siphon off the careerists is one promising way to do precisely that. It will take time. It will also require the Afghan state to work much more cohesively than it has in the past. Karzai has sent out feelers to the Taliban over the last few years, but these efforts have led to little progress. Now is the time to do begin this effort in earnest. And right now is a particularly opportune time, given that U.S. forces have the Taliban on the run and signs of pessimism are setting in. In fact, we might be at a point in which some Taliban members are more susceptible than ever to flipping sides.

OK, Yohanes, next issue. And let us not beat around the bush any longer. What are your thoughts on the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan? And what should Team Obama be doing differently? What will happen to Afghanistan once, as Obama intends, significant numbers of combat forces are pulled out of the country?

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