Despite a spate of recent press reports regarding secret high-level talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership, brutal US and British actions on the ground are undermining the prospects for a negotiated end to the war.
According to the Washington Post, the talks have involved “extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership” – from both the Quetta Shura (the Taliban’s Pakistan-based governing body) and the quasi-independent Haqqani network.
NATO forces have “secured roads to allow Taliban officials to reach Afghan- and NATO-controlled areas so they can take part in discussions”, and in at least one case Taliban leaders have reportedly crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul.
The US has denied any direct involvement in the talks though Pakistani officials claim that “[c]landestine meetings ... have taken place between senior Taliban members and CIA officials” (Independent).
A possible peace
While the Taliban maintains a public posture of insisting that talks cannot begin until foreign forces withdraw, in reality its leadership has “let it be known that it wants to talk to the Americans” (Ahmed Rashid, Financial Times).
The Taliban also appears to be prepared to accept a phased withdrawal of foreign forces and their replacement by a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations (see PN 2511). In a similar vein, Western, Pakistani and Afghan officials all told the Guardian that “the Haqqanis sense a negotiated settlement is the most likely outcome of the conflict... and are anxious not to be excluded”.
Negotiations with the Taliban have long commanded majority support in both Britain and Afghanistan but been rejected by the US government (see PN 2522).
Earlier this year, the Guardian reported: “The White House is revising its Afghanistan strategy to embrace the idea of negotiating with senior members of the Taliban through third parties”. However, US strategy on the ground – killing “Taliban” to force the movement’s leadership to the table on US terms – continues to undermine any such approach.
Thus, according to the New York Times, US special forces units have been “unleashed with particular ferocity”, killing 300 mid-level “Taliban commanders” and 800 “foot soldiers”, and capturing 2,000 “insurgents” in the three-month period ending 7 October.
British special forces are also heavily involved in these operations. A “senior military source” told the Telegraph: “The Taliban in Helmand are being killed by the SAS on an ‘industrial scale... striking everything, even as far down as mid- to low-level commanders... They are not waiting for gold-plated intelligence to launch strikes, they are just really going for it.’”
Airstrikes have also been dramatically increased, with 2,100 bombs and missiles used from June-October – including over 700 in September alone – an increase of nearly 50% over the same period last year.
“[T]he major result of this strategy,” Thomas Ruttig notes, “is radicalisation”, as killed or captured mid-level commanders are replaced by younger, much more radical ones.
According to Ruttig, who served as political adviser to the German embassy in Kabul between 2004 and 2006, and who now co-directs the Afghanistan Analysts Network, this “undermines any approach that is supposed to include ‘reconciliation’ or whatever it is called. Chances to ‘talk’ will even become more remote.”
Perhaps none of this is much of a surprise though.
After all, the facts on the ground – such as the three $100 million air base expansions in the south and the north of the country, that are currently taking place – show that the US is planning to remain in Afghanistan for a long time to come.