Patrick Cockburn: 'We need to talk to the Taliban'

David Cameron's controversial attack on the links between the Taliban and the Pakistani military misses the point. Those links are our only hope of solving this conflict, argues Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online

David Cameron's denunciation this week of Pakistan for "promoting terror" misses the point that there will be no peace in Afghanistan without Pakistani involvement. Finger-wagging by Mr Cameron is not going to change the interdependence between the insurgency in Afghanistan and the Pakistani army which has existed since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

But the link between the Taliban and the Pakistani military is an opportunity as well as a threat. Safe havens within Pakistan are essential to the Taliban, so its leaders will have to join peace talks if Pakistan insists that they do so. Such is the current level of Pakistani engagement in Afghanistan, which is not going to go away, that the Pakistani army must be openly part of any negotiations.

Serious talks about ending the war in Afghanistan have to bring together the four main players in the conflict: the US, the Afghan government, Pakistan and the Taliban. The aim of negotiations should be the formation of a national unity government. Other initiatives, such as the plan for Western states to pledge money to pay off members of the Taliban who defect to the side of the Kabul government, are absurd and self-deceiving, since the Taliban think they are winning. Their leaders openly comment that the US would not have sacked two of its commanders-in-chief in Afghanistan in less than a year if they thought they were pursuing a successful strategy. Commitments by President Obama and David Cameron about dates for a withdrawal of troops, even if these are conditional on political and military progress, show that neither leader feels politically strong enough to send more soldiers. For the US-led coalition, time is fast running out.

Not only is the war against the Taliban not being won, but the insurgents are growing stronger and the government in Kabul weaker, despite 30,000 US troop reinforcements. Heavily publicised campaigns, such as that to reoccupy a few farming villages at Marja in Helmand province, have failed to evict the local Taliban fighters. This lack of progress is telling, given that there are only an estimated 28,000 Taliban fighters facing more 145,000 Nato and 97,000 Afghan army troops.

The reasons for this failure include the opposition of ordinary Afghans to the occupation of their towns and villages by foreign troops, the discrediting of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai because of the fraudulent election in August 2009, and the belief among Afghans that he runs a regime of warlords and racketeers. "As a result," said one Afghan expert, "the insurgency is popular among Afghans even where the Taliban is not."

The US and its allies have never quite known what to do about an Afghan government which is increasingly discredited. For the moment, they are pursuing two wholly contradictory policies. One is "Afghanisation": turning the war over to the Afghan government by expanding the Afghan army and police at breakneck speed and giving it more control over aid money. A second policy, espoused by the American commander General David Petraeus, is for the US army to fund local militias answering to itself rather than Mr Karzai, thereby weakening the central government. Assassinations of suspected Taliban commanders by Task Force 373, effectively an American-run death squad, terrorise and infuriate Afghan villagers who are often the unintended victims.

Even if the Afghan government was not weak, it would not be possible to win the war militarily so long as the Taliban has sanctuaries across the frontier in Pakistan. Criticism of Pakistan, including Mr Cameron's outburst, has increased sharply in volume this week, as many of the files leaked to Wikileaks appear to show Pakistan's military intelligence – the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI – overseeing the Taliban's day-to-day operations. Such reports, which seem to come mostly from Afghan intelligence, are unconvincing and read as if they were concocted by local informants. It is unlikely, to say the least, that ISI agents were personally buying bottles of alcoholic drink in the markets of Peshawar and spiking them with poison with the intention of giving them to Western troops. The ISI is skilful and experienced enough to avoid providing much direct evidence of its contacts with the Taliban. Even so, a central feature of the Afghan war is that the Taliban cannot be defeated because under pressure, they can seek safety in Pakistan, where their leaders are based.

The intimate relationship between the Taliban and Pakistani army did not change after the attacks of 11 September 2001, when the US was at its most belligerent. It is unlikely to do so now. America's need to keep on good terms with the Pakistani army – three-quarters of a million-strong, nuclear-armed, and in control of Pakistan's policy on Afghanistan – means that it can never successfully pressure Pakistan to close the border, even supposing this was feasible. Earlier this month, Washington was applauding General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's reappointment as the Pakistani army chief of staff, though Kayani, seen today as sympathetic to US needs, was head of the ISI in 2004-07 when it was helping the Taliban restart the war in Afghanistan.

Instead of attacking Pakistan's quasi-control of the Taliban, President Obama and Mr Cameron would do better to use it to bring to an end Afghanistan's 30 years of civil war and foreign intervention. The Taliban leaders may not want to talk, believing they are on their way to winning a complete victory once the US and its allies withdraw. They would prefer to see Mr Karzai at the end of a rope rather than at the other end of a negotiating table. But if the Pakistani generals think that the moment has come for a deal on Afghanistan, then it will be difficult for the Taliban to turn them down.

For the moment, the US, Britain and the allies of the Afghan government are giving priority to "Afghanising" the war rather than trying to negotiate its end. This was the strategy endorsed by the international conference in Kabul earlier this month. To a degree, "Afghanisation", like "Vietnamisation" in South Vietnam 40 years ago, is camouflage for a Western withdrawal. In so far as it amounts to a substantive policy on the grounds it is hindered by the fragility and decreasing legitimacy of the Kabul government. Having faked the results of the presidential election in 2009, Mr Karzai seized control of the previously independent Electoral Complaints Commission in February and is likely to fix the results of the parliamentary election in September.

"Afghanisation" only stands a chance of showing results over time, and the time is not there. High-speed development of the Afghan state is not going to work. For instance, the official number of the Afghan army is 97,000, its real strength probably around 60,000, and the plan is to increase this to 134,000 by the end of 2011. The notoriously corrupt police force is to be expanded at a similarly breakneck pace. Past experience shows that recruits frequently join up only to make a small sum of money, get a square meal and disappear as soon as training is finished. If recruits are found, they are unlikely to be Pashtun, the community to which 42 per cent of Afghans belong and out of which the Taliban were born. As a result, Afghan soldiers sent to Pashtun heartlands will mostly be Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara who do not even speak the local language.

The very emphasis on training reveals another weakness of the Kabul government: it lacks a core of loyal supporters willing to fight and die for it. This is in contrast to the Taliban and their allies, who are somehow able to use old-fashioned infantry weapons to hold their own against heavily armed Western forces backed by the world's most modern air force.

The outcome of the fighting over the past year shows that the "surge" and "Afghanisation" are both failing to shift the balance of forces against the Taliban. This may disincline the Taliban to negotiate when they are doing well, but the hostility of the majority of Afghans who are non-Pashtun will deny them outright victory. On negotiations, they have always denounced Mr Karzai as a US pawn and will talk to the US as the occupying power only about a withdrawal and the release of prisoners. The US, for its part, insists that Mr Karzai's government alone should talk to the insurgents, though negotiations will be serious only if the Americans are involved.

The obstacles are enormous, but this might just be the moment for a deal to be made. The White House would like to get Afghanistan off the front pages and stop it being the lead item on television news before the next US presidential election in 2012. This will happen only if American soldiers stop dying, in which case, as happened in Iraq in 2008, US media interest in Afghanistan will swiftly wane. To achieve this, the US does not need a final agreement, but it does need a ceasefire to stop the present politically unsustainable trickle of casualties.

A problem for the US is that many of its generals have learnt the wrong lessons from Iraq. There the insurgency was divided, had no central control and, most crucially, was confined to the fifth of the Iraqi population which is Sunni Arab and was opposed by the four-fifths who are Shia or Kurdish. Squeezed between bloodthirsty al-Qa'ida fanatics and merciless Shia militiamen and soldiers, the Sunni rebels switched from attacking US troops to making an alliance with them. The situation in Afghanistan is wholly different.

The government of Hamid Karzai has an incentive to reach a settlement before the Americans start withdrawing, since his political strength depends on them. As one diplomat in Baghdad put it: "Distrust of foreigners is part of the DNA of Afghans." He added that Mr Karzai and other Afghan leaders suffer from a "Najibullah syndrome" – a fear that they will be abandoned by their foreign sponsor, as was the last Communist head of state, Mohammad Najibullah, who was tortured and hanged by the Taliban in 1996. His fate may incline Mr Karzai at least to consider talking to the Taliban and Pakistan, though this will alienate members of his government belonging to the old anti-Taliban Northern Alliance that recovered from near-defeat by taking advantage of the US decision after 11 September to overthrow the Taliban, which enabled it to march into Kabul in 2001.

Support from the Pakistani army was essential to the Taliban's survival and return to war in 2006. Calling for talks between the US, Pakistan, Taliban and Karzai government, Professor Gilles Dorronsoro, an expert on Afghanistan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cogently argues that "negotiations with Taliban leaders can be undertaken only if the Pakistani army agrees to act as broker. Without Pakistan, there will be no solution in Afghanistan." The Pakistani army has some incentives for trying for an agreement now. Such negotiations would make Pakistan, rather than India, America's most important ally in the region. Moreover, it is to the advantage of Pakistan that the Taliban become part of an internationally recognised power-sharing government in Kabul. Pakistan benefited little from being the main supporter of a largely unrecognised Taliban regime ruling most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

Of course, it would be much nicer from the point of view of America, Britain, Nato and the Karzai government if the Pakistani army were to stop the Taliban crossing the 2,500-kilometre Afghan-Pakistan border and not ask for a quid pro quo. There is no sign of this happening, however – and it would, in any case, not be easy to do. The Pakistani army is already overstretched, taking back districts occupied by the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on its north-west frontier. Local Pakistani military commanders told me that they regard their own insurgents as bandits and fanatics undeserving of the name of Taliban. But they have nothing but praise for the Afghan Taliban, whom they see as Pashtun freedom-fighters battling a foreign occupation and a hostile government in Kabul. They also ask why they should be told to police their side of the frontier, as if this was easy, when the US-led coalition and the Afghan army have wholly failed to secure their side.

In many ways, what needs to be done now was what was not done under the Bonn agreement in 2001 when, in the wake of the fall of the Taliban regime, Mr Karzai was selected by the US as the new leader of Afghanistan. The Taliban were not at the peace conference and were treated as if they had been permanently eliminated from the political map. The Pashtun community found itself marginalised and deprived of power and Pakistan's interests were ignored in an accord that was a recipe for instability.

Nine years after Bonn, Afghanistan is ravaged by apparently insoluble conflicts, but a solution can come only if this time the four players holding real power in the country negotiate a settlement.

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