Barack Obama should “sanction and support a direct dialogue with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan”, according to an open letter to the US President signed by over fifty experts on Afghanistan. Noting that “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country”, the signatories – who include pro-invasion Telegraph reporter Ahmed Rashid, academics from both the National War College (US) and King’s College’s War Studies Department, London, and a retired member of US Special Forces – state their belief “that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan.” All have worked inside the country, sometimes for decades.
Inkspots and bullet trains
The experts’ assessment stands in stark contrast to that provided by the Obama administration which claims that US-led forces are “achieving greater safety and security”. However, it resonates with that of the Red Cross (which recently noted that their access to those in need “has never been as poor” in the last 30 years) as well as the latest US National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan (which observed that Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s authority extends no further than urban “inkspots” secured by NATO forces).
No settlement, no peace
The experts note that while “military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security ... those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement.” “Like it or not,” they conclude, “the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach” a settlement.
Moreover, “from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later”.
Willing to negotiate
Crucially – and despite its public denials – the Taliban’s leadership “has indicated its willingness to negotiate”. “Now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and west of the country”, the movement is “primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan ... [not] a broader global Islamic jihad”.
In a recent BBC poll, 73% of Afghans said that the Afghan government should negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. However, as Jonathan Steele has noted, “No progress is possible until Obama announces a new strategy of engaging the Taliban with a view to local, provincial and nationwide ceasefires plus talks for a coalition government in Kabul in parallel with a rapidly phased and full NATO withdrawal.”
Instead, the US continues to escalate the war. In September and October alone, NATO planes carried out 1,700 airstrikes in Afghanistan (up 85% from the same period in 2009) while the Guardian reports that “American troops now routinely destroy houses that they believe to be a threat”. Indeed, an Afghan presidential commission recently claimed that military operations in the Kandahar area had caused more than $100 million in damage to homes and farms over the past six months.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same BBC poll showed a surge in the proportion of Afghans who said that attacks on US/NATO forces could be justified: 27%, up from 8% the year before.