Peace talks again in Afghanistan and this time the Taliban may deal
There are new reports of impending talks with the Afghan Taliban. Previous reports have either been baseless or talks took place but led nowhere.
The outcome of today’s reports is of course uncertain but there are reasons why the Taliban may now be more willing to seek a negotiated settlement than in recent years.
The war has been stalemated for several years now. The Taliban have not been able to launch a significant ground offensive since they took heavy losses in one back in 2007. They have won over all the parts of the country that are likely ever to support them, leaving large areas where the locals adamantly oppose Taliban rule.
Insurgent levies are continuously mobilized but are rarely used – except for the tedious chores of hefting supplies and establishing security for IED teams.
Amid this drudgery unaccented by successful engagements or meaningful rewards, they have become more concerned with families back in the villages.
Insurgents occasionally launch sharp attacks on bases or in cities, but they lead only to high Taliban casualties, which may be increasingly seen as pointless and endless. The attacks have not eroded American resolve by any means.
The Taliban is far from a well-defined organization. It is a confederation of levies, tribal networks, and short-term allies which rests chiefly on common opposition to the presence of foreigners.
The leadership has seen its authority weaken as younger, less pragmatic commanders have risen to power in many districts as the result of casualties among older, more pragmatic commanders – some dating back to the Russian war (1979-89) and the ensuing civil war.
An especially troubling phenomenon, from the insurgents’ perspective, has begun in a few southern and eastern districts that were once reliably in the Taliban camp. Elders are beginning to see the Taliban as obstacles to local economic development and are taking up arms against them.
The discontented elders and their bands are not going over to the side of the U.S. and Kabul government, but no insurgents can continue their campaigns without local support, let alone in the face of growing local opposition.
International realities are making themselves clear to insurgents. Many ISAF powers are leaving Afghanistan entirely and the U.S. is withdrawing its regular combat forces.
The U.S., however, will retain special forces and air support units to bolster the fledgling Afghan army for many years.
Regional powers such as India, Iran, Russia, and several Central Asian states are opposed to a Taliban government near them. They are backing the Kabul government and army, despite obvious shortcomings, and are willing to support them indefinitely. Put bluntly, regional powers are willing to fight to the last Afghan to keep the Taliban out of power.
The Taliban have only the dubious support of Pakistan – strictly speaking, the support of parts of the Pakistani army and intelligence services – which can be of no help in postwar reconstruction programs.
Events are taking place inside Pakistan as well, though they are of uncertain origin and significance.
Several Taliban leaders have been released over the last two months in an at least apparent effort to get peace talks underway. As encouraging as this may be, the U.S. has learned, if only belatedly and after hard lessons, that the Pakistani army and intelligence services have long supported various groups inside Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-i-Taiba, and perhaps even Al Qaida itself. Pakistani support stems either from overwhelming though unseen U.S. pressure or from yet more duplicity from the Pakistani generals.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.