The Avoidable War

IssueMarch 2011
News by Gabriel Carlyle

Even as the current US-led escalation in Afghanistan continues to shut-down the still-live option of a negotiated end to the war, a new report has confirmed that the US blocked Taliban efforts to reconcile with the Afghan government in the wake of the 2001 invasion – efforts that could have ended the current war eight years ago.

According to a recent paper for New York University’s Centre for International Cooperation, written by Kandahar-based researchers Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten: “In November 2002, senior Taliban figures gathered in Pakistan and considered the possibility of political engagement and reconciliation with the new Afghan government”. One participant later described the meeting: “[The Taliban’s spiritual leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar wasn’t there, but everyone else was, all the high-ranking ministers and cabinet members of the Taliban. We discussed whether to join the political process in Afghanistan or not and we took a decision that, yes, we should go and join the process”.

An interlocutor who had been asked to engage with the group said that its members would have returned to Afghanistan if they could have received assurances that they would not be arrested. However, “neither the Afghan government nor their international sponsors saw any reason to engage with the Taliban at that time”, considering them “a spent force”. Instead, several Taliban intermediaries were imprisoned.

Torture and detention

The new claims accord with an earlier report by journalist Anand Gopal, who has covered Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal. According to Gopal, many former Taliban commanders who chose to retire following the 2001 invasion were detained and tortured in secret prisons by the new regime, and, “Soon a sense began to develop among those formerly connected to the regime, from senior officials to rank-and-file fighters, that there was no place for them in the post-2001 society”, a major factor in the Taliban’s post-invasion resurgence.

Rejection repeated

Today, the Taliban’s leadership publicly rejects talks until NATO troops have been withdrawn. However, as Telegraph journalist Ben Farmer reports, citing a former Taliban who now sits on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, “Privately, they are not opposed to negotiation, but first want safe conduct, prisoners released and names removed from a sanctions blacklist”.

The Peace Council’s first formal recommendation is for the US to release the Taliban’s former foreign affairs spokesman, Khairullah Khairkhwa, from Guantanamo Bay, where he has been detained for almost nine years. According to ex-Taliban Mullah Rahmani, now the chair of the Council’s political prisoners committee, “His release would show [the Taliban] that the Americans are serious about negotiations”.

However, echoing their earlier rejection, the US has thus far refused to include Guantanamo prisoners in any talk of negotiation, and in September 2010 it blacklisted three alleged insurgent “financiers”, all of whom had recently been engaged in discussions with the Afghan government. This move was “seen by the Taliban’s leadership as a direct attempt to control the start of any negotiation process” (Kuehn and van Linschoten).

Just getting started

In February the FT reported that, “To General David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, the real war against the Taliban is only just getting started”, citing his plans to “ramp up the pace” of the “escalating campaign of raids by special forces” that kill or capture alleged insurgent commanders.

According to Kuehn and van Linschoten these raids – many of which involve the SAS, who have reportedly been killing people on an “industrial scale” in Helmand (see PN 2527) – have had a significant impact on the Taliban’s chain of command, producing a new generation of commanders “more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations, and therefore less pragmatic.”

Unlike the older generation of Taliban leadership, who are now “struggling to maintain [their] hold over the insurgency”, these new commanders are not interested in negotiations or compromise with foreigners.

“If a political settlement is indeed being sought,” Kuehn and van Linschoten note, “there is little sense in trying to destroy the organisations one wants to talk to.”

If and when the US does become seriously interested in a political settlement – the option favoured by most Afghans (see PN 2530) – it may no longer have anyone left to talk to.