Analysts see political engagement with insurgents as best prospect for securing peace.
By Caroline Tosh in London and Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul
As violence continues in Afghanistan, there is a growing consensus that the Taleban cannot be defeated by military might alone, and that negotiations might offer a way towards some kind of political settlement.
The number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan reached 100 last week when three soldiers died in a suicide attack in Helmand on June 8. Four days later, two more members of the Parachute Regiment were killed in an ambush.
This grim landmark figure has prompted observers to ask whether the achievements to date, and the likely future gains, are enough to justify the growing list of casualties.
When British troops were sent in to Helmand province in spring 2006 to provide security and oversee reconstruction efforts, the then defence secretary John Reid said he hoped the mission would come and go without a single shot being fired. The Taleban, whose government was overthrown in 2001, were no longer considered a serious threat.
However, since then, the so-called neo-Taleban has re-emerged as a deadly fighting force, bolstered with support from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups
In spite of the presence of tens of thousands of troops in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, and the United States-led coalition (Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF) around the country, the Taleban’s influence continues to grow across Afghanistan, beyond its traditional strongholds in the south and east.
While it cannot defeat international forces in conventional warfare, the Taleban also use Iraqi-style tactics – suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices targeting civilian as well as military targets in an attempt to destabilise the country.
According to UN figures, last year proved the bloodiest yet, with more than 8,000 lives claimed by the fighting, around 1,500 of them civilians.
Meanwhile, appraisals of the international community’s nation building and reconstruction efforts have been critical. Most Afghan communities still live in grinding poverty with no access to basic services.
Afghans have little faith in central government, which has limited reach in many areas and is riddled with corruption. There is also bitter disappointment that training of the police, army, and civil servants has been much slower than hoped.
"We are making significant progress in Afghanistan. It’s slow, sometimes it’s frustratingly slow," Britain’s Defence Secretary Des Browne admitted on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on June 9.
Taleban Gaining Upper Hand
Although the international media has focused on the spreading influence of the Taleban, analysts say it is hard to assess the extent of their control.
One reason for this is that the Taleban is often linked to attacks carried out by other actors.
“Many attacks attributed to the Taleban are actually undertaken by tribal groups and are really a result tribal of disputes,” said Mark Sedra, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, CIGI, in Ontario. “These are often claimed by the Taleban, and are reported by the international press as Taleban attacks, when often the links to the movement are very tenuous.”
Paul Smyth of the Royal United Services Institute in London agrees that the situation is not clear-cut.
“It is extremely difficult to measure how the insurgency is going, and trying to find a yardstick that you can use for a credible assessment as to whether things are going badly or going well [for the Taleban] is extremely difficult,” he said.
Smyth stressed that nation-building and counter insurgency are processes that can take “many, many years”.
“How can we, after seven years, and only three since ISAF [moved] to promote security across the whole country… make any sort of credible judgements about whether or not the mission is doomed to failure or inevitable victory?” he asked.
Observers note that support for the Taleban has increased among Afghan civilians of late, as the insurgents appear to be winning the propaganda war.
An International Crisis Group report from February 2008 concluded, “Troop shortages, potential withdrawals [of foreign troops] and infighting all feed perceptions of weakening of international resolve, and thus influence the dynamics of the insurgency.”
With support for the Afghan war and the commitment of troops becoming an election liability in many countries, reports in the international media say some governments, including those of the Netherlands and Canada, are scheduling troop withdrawals to take place within two years.
Collateral damage from ISAF and OEF military operations, as well as perceptions of cultural insensitivity from international troops, have also served to boost the popularity of the Taleban.
“The killing of innocent people by the foreign forces, especially the Americans, bombing houses, insulting people’s culture and beliefs, raiding houses during the night, searching women – these are all factors that pave the way for the Taleban to grow stronger,” said Habibullah Rafi, a political analyst and member of the Academy of Sciences in Kabul.
Meanwhile, analysts say widespread official corruption, along with the failure of sub-national administrations to provide basic levels of services to locals, has driven entire communities to back the militias.
“The Afghan government is so corrupt that people have now lost confidence in it,” said Rafi.
“Poverty, unemployment, problems created by warlords, and lawlessness are all issues that widen the gap between government and the people. This is to the Taleban’s advantage.”
A spokesman for the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, Aleem Siddique, acknowledged that the national authorities have very little presence in some parts of the country.
“When people do have contact with the government, it’s often with corrupt police or government officials who are more of a hindrance than a benefit in their lives,” he said.
The Taleban have proved adept at exploiting tensions between local communities and government over opium poppy production, promising to protect the crops of poor farmers from official eradication programmes.
They produce promotional DVDs, disseminated in Pakistani bazaars, promoting the rebel cause and portraying the Taleban as victorious.
“An effective campaign has created a growing feeling among many Afghans that momentum is on the Taleban’s side and that they have taken the initiative in the conflict,” said Sedra, adding that this perception had prompted many people to back the Taleban not out of any belief in their ideology, but because they see them as a likely winner in the conflict.
“Afghans have been through three decades of conflict; they have developed a keen sense of picking winners and ensuring that they are on the right side when the dust settles, because of course that will have major implications for their own position in the post-war dispensation,” said Sedra.
Marvin G. Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute said that with no obvious winner of the insurgency emerging, many Afghans were reluctant to show loyalty to either side.
“They are [yet] to be convinced that the government and the international community are going to be around, because the Taleban’s message to them is that ‘we’ll be here long after [the international community] has gone’,” he said.
Many observers also believe that the growing support for the Taleban is partly a result of nostalgia for the rough justice and security it provided when it ran the country between 1996 and 2001.
During its reign, there were fewer of the criminal gangs and warlords that are now so prevalent – particularly in the north of the country, where militia commanders have been co-opted into state institutions with a devastating effect on local populations.
“Some would argue many Afghans preferred the harsh justice of the Taleban to no justice at all,” said BBC Kabul correspondent Alastair Leithead.
Afghan political analyst Qasim Akhgar said the West’s failure to bring pressure to bear on Pakistan, where the Taleban have their headquarters, had given the movement time and space to grow.
“The international community knows everything. They know how the Taleban came onto the scene, they know where their hideouts are, who their supporters are…but the international community, particularly the United States, refrains from bringing serious pressure to bear on Pakistan,” he said.
Balance of Power
The gruelling task faced by international troops in defending territory against Taleban fighters – often with resources thin on the ground – has been written about extensively in the international press.
New tactics such as roadside bombs and suicide attacks have caused casualties to soar, particularly in Helmand province, the frontline of the insurgency.
Yet, Smyth argues that these “terrorist” strategies might reflect the weakness rather than the strength of the group.
“Ultimately, if [the Taleban] become reliant on terrorism, I think that (a) that undermines their moral authority to govern, (b) it runs the very real risk of alienating the population, and (c) it applies a level of violence that –across the globe in many countries – people have demonstrated an ability to absorb and accommodate,” he said.
Antonio Giustozzi, author of a recent book called “Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan”, said the insurgents lack the capacity to make substantial territorial gains.
“They control most of the rural areas, but they’re not going to get firm control over the towns or the highways, he said.
“Though they can carry out occasional raids and set up road blocks, they are not going to be able to do much more than that because of the sheer technological superiority of the foreign forces.”
Siddique dismissed the idea that the Taleban would reach a point where they were in a position to topple the government.
“When you deploy hit-and-run asymmetric tactics, of course it has a huge influence and psychological impact on the people, but that does not mean that the Taleban are any threat to take over from the government,” he said.
At the same time, the Taleban have de facto control of much of the countryside in Helmand, and when they are dislodged by concerted military action backed by airpower, they need only wait for the armed forces to withdraw before they move back in.
They have also held urban centres for significant periods of time, for example, Musa Qala, where they won effective control in October 2006 when the British forces withdrew under an agreement in which local tribal elders were supposed to keep the peace. The Taleban made their domination official by setting up a district government in February 2007.
Further south, a major offensive launched by US Marines in late April this year is in fact the third time the international forces have moved to dislodge the insurgents from Garmsir; the first two, in September 2006 and February 2007, do not seem to have proved lasting gains.
So even if the Taleban cannot hold territory against overwhelming force, the international troops seem to be too thinly spread to prevent the guerrillas seeping back into an area once full-blown military action is at an end. This clearly has major implications for the elements that are supposed to follow military operations – sustainable local government and reconstruction work.
If the military confrontation seems to have reached a stalemate in which neither side has the upper hand, the Taleban’s ability to intimidate people and disrupt the country is debilitating for the authorities.
“What you’ll hear many people saying in Kabul is the Taleban can never win this insurgency, but there are also no guarantees that the government of Afghanistan will win it either,” said Siddique.
While the militia force may lack the ability to make substantial territorial gains, it shows no signs of laying down its arms, and has promised to continue fighting until all foreign troops have been expelled from Afghanistan.
The longer the impasse continues, analysts say, the more damaging it is for the internationals and the Afghan government, and their attempts to restore order in the country. A guerrilla force has the advantage of waiting for its opponent to tire.
“The Taleban has spread the word – the US has the watches and we have the time,” said Dr Citha Maass of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP, citing a rumour current in southern Afghanistan.
“So in the long term, if you can sit and wait, you are in a stronger position. The internationals always have to justify why they sent their soldiers and why so many soldiers are killed.”
Grinding the Taleban Down
In the meantime, international troops and the Afghan National Army continue to apply military pressure on the Taleban in the hope that the force will one day crack.
“It’s a kind of slow erosion – inflicting serious casualties hoping that they will create dissent within the ranks and then the credibility of the leadership will collapse, and people will be more inclined to either surrender or simply abandon the fight,” explained Giustozzi.
“That would create disruption and would also discredit the Taleban among the jihadist supporters so that funding will not be forthcoming, at least not in the same quantities.”
However, experts agree that the insurgency will not be quashed by military force alone. To remove support for the Taleban, they say, the authorities must strengthen civil society, tackle government corruption and provide more effective aid.
“Many United States military officials today in Afghanistan will talk about what they would call ‘kinetic [military] operations’ as a distraction, actually, to the more important work providing an enabling an environment for development, reconstruction and state consolidation,” noted Sedra.
Siddique, too, stressed the need for a multiple-track approach.
“We need to see greater efforts in the field of development and the delivery of basic services, to undercut the support for the insurgency,” he said.
Another priority is tackling the thriving opium poppy trade, which is not only having a corroding effect on the country’s institutions, but is also helping to fund the rebellion, he added.
“Estimates by UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] are that as much as ten per cent of poppy price that farmers sell their poppy for goes towards the Taleban insurgency,” said Siddique.
Time to Cut a Deal
With a growing sense that reluctance to engage with the Taleban politically is only extending the conflict, calls for negotiations with the group gather momentum.
An Afghan government programme set up to persuade more moderate Taleban to lay down their weapons and commit themselves to the authorities has so far offered amnesties to thousands of low-level members.
This programme, under which former rebel combatants could potentially be offered official positions, has not so far enjoyed international support. Western officials are reluctant to enter into negotiations with an organisation regarded as a terrorist group, and many the donor states – the US, in particular – have been vehemently opposed to talks.
However, some countries, including the UK, see talks with the Taleban as the way forward.
Last month, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a speech delivered in Washington that there was “no military solution” to the spread of extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“So we need to separate those determined to impose their views by force of arms from those willing to accept the freedoms and limits of a constitutional order. We need to incorporate as far as possible the full range of competing interests within public politics,” he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in London.
Giustozzi said he thought there were already channels of communication open between the government and the Taleban, as well as between the insurgents and the United Nations.
He also pointed out that with a new US president set to take over in winter, Washington’s opposition to talks could change.
“After November, there will be a new president in America who might have different views, or at least might not [take] the same kind of ownership for what has been done so far, and will be open to changing tack,” he said.
“I think everybody seems to be aware, and they’re already starting to prepare the ground, so if negotiations start say some time next spring, there will already be channels of communication open, they will be already established and then things can move relatively quickly.”
Even now, there are signs the Bush administration may be coming round to the idea of talks.
In a report published on the website of Canadian paper Toronto Star, on May 31, Sedra reported that “sources in the administration indicate that it has quietly expressed its support” for the reconciliation programme.
“I think that [backing talks with the Taleban] is quietly becoming an administration policy,” he told IWPR.
President Hamed Karzai has repeatedly extended the olive branch to the Taleban, and has even said he would offer cabinet posts to Taleban leader Mullah Omar and the leader of the allied Hizb-e Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, if it would lead to peace.
The Taleban movement has so far snubbed Karzai’s overtures, ostensibly because of his refusal to expel foreign troops from Afghan soil.
Further obstacles could stand in the way of government talks. Former members of the mujahedin groups in the “Northern Alliance”, who fought the Taleban for many years, now dominate parliament and are deeply opposed to pursuing a political settlement.
The former commanders are reluctant to relinquish any of their considerable power to their old enemy, and also fear that they would lose power if peace broke out in the mainly Pashtun south of Afghanistan and it began playing a greater role in state governance.
Ismail Yun, a political analyst and lecturer at Kabul University, believes the international community made a fundamental mistake, first by supporting warlords who opposed the Taleban, and then by marginalising the group.
“It was a mistake by the international community that from the very beginning they gave advantages to some criminal factions just because they were opposing the Taleban. They removed the Taleban from the political scene completely,” he said.
These groups, who won power because they were anti-Taleban, are now creating obstacles to negotiations, he said, adding, “They don’t want the Taleban to share power in the government, because then they will lose their privileged position.
In spite of this, Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and leader of Jamiat-e Islami, a key northern faction, announced last month that he was talking to the Taleban. He said he had been in touch with rebel leaders and had received “encouraging messages” directed at the northern factions.
According to Rabbani, the militants expressed a wish for a political solution to the conflict.
However, a subsequent press statement from the Taleban denied there had been any contact.
Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, remain divided over the prospect of negotiating a settlement.
Maass said that during her last trip to Afghanistan in April to May this year, people she spoke to indicated their support for the policy.
“In principle, Afghan people will tell you, ‘Yes, of course, we have to talk with enemies,’ in this case with Taleban, because that is normal for Afghans,” she said.
According to Yun, ordinary Afghans are supportive of talking to the Taleban. They are tired of fighting and just want peace, he said.
”If somebody is thirsty, he or she is in need of water. It’s not important where the water comes from. People in Afghanistan are thirsty for peace now. And they do not care how or from where the peace comes.”
However, Siddique believes many are wary of political engagement with the group without clear red lines on important issues.
“They don’t want to see the international community or the government sell out girls’ education, or TV and media freedom to the Taleban, or any other party for that matter, for a convenient political settlement,” he said.
Peace on What Terms?
If talks were to go ahead, it remains unclear what the terms of an eventual peace deal or power-sharing agreement might be.
It might be hard to convince the Taleban to lay down their arms and negotiate if they feel victory is only a matter of time.
Giustozzi said negotiations did not automatically mean a deal would be reached, because some of the Taleban’s demands were likely to be unacceptable for the Afghan authorities.
“It’s possible that conversations will start and they’re stuck… and no deal is really reached,” he said.
Sedra noted that when Karzai has made public appeals to the Taleban in the past, the group’s spokesman has responded with certain conditions that are “essentially non-starters” for any peace deal.
“The reality is there’s an Afghan constitution now, which many of the Taleban interpretations of Sharia law [Islamic] would clearly undermine,” he said.
Neither would the Afghan government accede to the Taleban’s demand for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops.
In addition, top Taleban figures may not be eligible for an amnesty even if they wanted one.
“Mullah Omar can’t appear tomorrow and say, ‘I’m ready to do peace’. Nobody is going to say all is forgiven, come in from the cold,” agreed Siddique.
The senior Taleban leadership might not be prepared to make compromises for the sake of peace.
“Nobody should be fooled that the agenda of these groups is a strictly Islamic agenda. They’re not going to shed that view. Without that they have no purpose,” said Weinbaum.
He also warned of the dangers involved in negotiating with a group so closely linked with ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist organisations.
“If [the Taleban enter a power-sharing agreement] it opens the door as well for terrorist organisations to reassert themselves in Afghanistan, so [it is not] a matter of simply saying that we want to find a political solution.”
However, others remain optimistic that with the right political and economic incentives, a deal could be reached with the more moderate elements of the Taleban.
“It’s very hard to tell, but there have been indications that it would be possible to drive a wedge between some moderate Taleban commanders and the hard-core leadership,” said Sedra.
He dismissed fears that negotiations with the movement could allow al-Qaeda to somehow grasp power through the back door.
“Any sort of rapprochement with elements of the Taleban would involve a clear renunciation of any links with al-Qaeda,” he said.
“I’m sure if there was any intelligence indicating that these actors were maintaining those links it would scuttle any sort of deal.”
Caroline Tosh is an IWPR editor in London. Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.