Talking to the Taliban

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, Taliban on March 9, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Talking to moderates within the Taliban?  Though this did not work before 9/11, there is some resurgence of this idea in the Obama administration:

President Obama says the United States is open to reaching out to some moderate voices in the Taliban, but critics say that’s not the right approach.  In an interview published in the New York Times this weekend, Obama said some military leaders believe that part of the success in Iraq has come from reaching out to Sunni militants there.

The president said while the situation in Afghanistan is much more complex, there may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I don’t want to prejudge the review that’s currently taking place. If you talk to Gen. [David] Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of al Qaeda in Iraq,” he told the Times. Asked if the United States is winning the war in Afghanistan, Obama said “no.”

Given that remark, Gary Berntsen, a former CIA officer who led CIA forces in Afghanistan after 9/11, said Monday that it could be difficult to get members of the Taliban to work with the United States.  “If you keep saying the Taliban are winning, what incentive is there now for individuals who are fighting against us to come over to us,” he said on CNN’s “American Morning.”

“Afghanistan is clearly not Iraq. The problem in Afghanistan is you might be able to split individuals, but you’re not going to be able to split entire groups,” he said, noting that Afghanistan has numerous networks.

Trying to engage the Taliban directly, Berntsen said, is not a good idea.

“You don’t want to reach out directly to them [from] the United States. You want to work through the Afghans,” he said.

“You want to be working with the Afghans as partners as you reach out to individuals. You’re not getting them as a group. If you do bring some of them in as a group, they’ll cooperate with you just like they did in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, but the second you’re gone, they’re going to start abusing the population, violating human rights,” he said.

In 2007, the British managed to bring a Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef over and made him governor of the Musa Qala district. But now, there are complaints about him and allegations of corruption.

There have been success stories though, for example when former Taliban commanders became members of the parliament. Berntsen said that has worked because the leaders get a voice, but not executive power.

Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, said neither the United States nor the Taliban appear to be ready for negotiations.

“The Taliban believe they may be winning in Afghanistan, and they also are confident that they are not losing, which for an insurgent movement amounts to the same thing. They see no need to negotiate today when they can get a better deal down the road,” he wrote in a commentary for CNN.com

Plus, Bergen pointed out, the Obama administration is sending 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and “not the kind of units you send in to play nice.” Read Bergen’s nine reasons why dealing with the Taliban isn’t likely

As the United States moves toward a strategy shift, Berntsen said the situation is best placed in the hands of Petraeus and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

“The White House would be wise to allow Holbrooke and Petraeus to work on this thing and for them to not comment all that much on this because the reality is they don’t have experience on the ground, doing this sort of thing, most of them,” he said.

From the NYTimes Interview:

At the same time, he acknowledged that outreach may not yield the same success. “The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex,” he said. “You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge.”

For American military planners, reaching out to some members of the Taliban is fraught with complexities. For one thing, officials would have to figure out which Taliban members might be within the reach of a reconciliation campaign, no easy task in a lawless country with feuding groups of insurgents.

And administration officials have criticized the Pakistani government for its own reconciliation deal with local Taliban leaders in the Swat Valley, where Islamic law has been imposed and radical figures hold sway. Pakistani officials have sought to reassure administration officials that their deal was not a surrender to the Taliban, but rather an attempt to drive a wedge between hard-core Taliban leaders and local Islamists.



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