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Opinion

Opinion

Taliban talks hold no magic for Afghanistan

March 15, 2009

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There’s been a buzz in the media about whether talks with the Taliban are the key to peace in Afghanistan.

The speculation increased when President Obama told the New York Times last weekend that the U.S. military might reach out to elements of the Afghan Taliban, just as it reached out to Sunni tribes and militias in Iraq.

Citing Gen. David Petraeus, the president said that “part of the success in Iraq” involved dealing with people we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, who had been alienated by the tactics of al-Qaida in Iraq. “There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region,” he continued.

Coming as the administration winds up its strategic review of the Afpak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) situation, the president’s remarks could be taken to mean that a deal with the Taliban might avoid a quagmire.

I hate to tell you, but no such silver bullet is in sight.

The prospects for any deal with the Taliban are much exaggerated. And while we can usefully study the similarities with Iraq, the differences between the two conflicts are even more key.

Indeed, Obama recognized that the Afghan situation is “more complex” than Iraq, involving “a less governed region,” and fiercely independent tribes that may operate “at cross purposes.” Too true. The Afghan tribes are far more fragmented than Iraqi Sunnis, and lack the tribal alliances and leaders that emerged to ally with U.S. troops.

But what the president didn’t detail were the many reasons Iraq’s Sunni tribes ultimately turned against al-Qaida in Iraq:

First, al-Qaida in Iraq’s core membership were foreign Arabs; their fanatic religiosity was inimical to Iraq (contrary to the president’s remarks, Iraq’s Sunni tribes are not “fundamentalist,” but secular or traditionally religious). The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, are local Pashtuns, and although their version of Islam is harsh, even for Afghanistan, that country is far more conservative than urbanized Iraq.

Second, and critically important, the Iraqi Sunnis shifted gears out of weakness: they finally recognized they were losing a civil war with Iraq’s Shiite majority. They turned to the Americans when the latter offered to become their protectors, and to put them on the U.S. payroll.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban are definitely not losing. Obama answered a flat “No” when asked if he thought that the United States was winning, echoing his military commanders.

It’s one thing to negotiate from a winning position, another to attempt to do so when you are stalemated. Why would Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, make concessions if they think they can take over most of the country by continuing to fight?

Indeed, Mullah Omar has made clear he has no interest in deals with the Afghan government (which would require the Taliban to accept the constitution). Moreover, senior Taliban leaders have become ideologically entwined with al-Qaida. Together with Osama bin Laden and his core group, the Afghan Taliban have found safe haven in the border areas of Pakistan: A weak Pakistani government and its ambivalent armed forces have yet to crush them.

These close ties with al-Qaida make any deal with top Taliban virtually impossible; they also underscore why the United States can’t just go home.

And yet, despite all this, there are some relevant comparisons to Iraq in Afghanistan, so long as expectations are scaled down.

Petraeus has famously spoken of separating “reconcilables” from “irreconcilables” in Iraq. On Afghanistan, he has called for doing the same, in concert with the Afghan government and security forces.

This means trying to peel off village and tribal leaders who allied with the Taliban out of fear or economic necessity, but don’t really want their return. U.S. or local Afghan forces would have to provide security, fend off Taliban reprisals, and help kill or drive out the irreconcilables.

They would also have to help ensure that the Afghan government provided services and jobs to persuade villagers to switch loyalties. Meantime, the United States would try to stabilize Pakistan with economic aid, diplomacy and military backing.

We are looking at a slow, step-by-step process, working largely with local leaders. Thus, talk of talks with the Taliban means less, in the short term, than many assume.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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