Afghanistan: Is Now the Time to Talk?

Former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment, Patrick Bury, writes exclusively for Left Foot Forward on the way ahead in Afghanistan, and the options available for the coalition forces.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who has served in Sangin, Afghanistan; he delivered his Masters dissertation on Military-Media Relations and a memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, is to be published in September by Simon and Schuster

Prime minister David Cameron announced last week that British combat troops could begin leaving Afghanistan as early as next summer, if the conditions on the ground are conducive to a handover to Afghan Security Forces (ANSF). Unless there is a rapid and decisive improvement in the security situation in most provinces they will not be ready, and the shooting of two soldiers the same day in the relatively safe area of Lashkar Gah only serves to highlight this.

Meanwhile, at the Kabul security conference, President Hamid Karzai proudly stated he wanted Afghan National Security Forces controlling Afghan security by 2014. To reach this target he advocated a boost in Afghan National Army (ANA) figures to 170,000, an increase of about 30 per cent, and increasing Afghan National Police members to 134,000 from 90,000.

Yet such proposals need careful examination. An ANSF presence of over 300,000 police and soldiers from a population of 28 million equals 93 ANSF members per 1,000 members of the population. In Iraq the same ratio is below 20 per 1,000. Maintaining such a high level of ANSF after the withdrawal of NATO combat troops in a nation with a GDP of only $23 billion is simply unsustainable.

Meanwhile, the very ability of ANA units to conduct independent operations remains questionable. Army units are ranked from 1-4 on such criteria, and very few Afghan units have reached this stage after four years of careful mentoring.

The conference also pledged to transfer up to 50 per cent of total international aid into the Afghan government’s hands. The hope is that with the Afghan government taking the lead in development projects, ordinary Afghans, who are increasingly suspect of foreign intervention, can be won over.

Since 2001 over $36 billion has been pumped into Afghanistan, over $1,200 per head, but there has been little impact on development and governance. Indeed, most of this money seems to have been spent on ANSF, personal bodyguards and even villas in Dubai.

And it’s not just the spiralling cost of the war that is worrying NATO governments now. British casualties have also soared in the last 18 months to 14 deaths per 1,000 – twice that of the Americans. Casualties in the Helmand town of Sangin are running at approximately 25 per cent. This is roughly equivalent to the bloody breakout battles from the Normandy beachhead in 1944.

Amidst this situation it is not surprising that there has been a marked shift in the White House’s position on negotiating with the Taliban. Over the past months rhetoric has been changed noticeably from ‘defeat’ to ‘degrade’ and now to ‘reintegration’.

Finally, it seems, the US is heeding the advice of Pakistan and Britain, who have long urged the need for negotiations. According to senior military sources secret negotiations continue to be conducted with Taliban elements, but to date these have been ad hoc.

A US commitment to negotiations would see more centralised control of dialogue and the possibility of negotiations with Afghanistan’s big players. Mr. Karzai could take the lead in speaking to the Taliban’s spiritual father, Mullah Omar, the Pakistani backed Hiqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s insurgents.

Not all of these would want to talk, and the US and NATO will have to swallow some bitter pills just to get them to the table, including their pride and their much heralded protection of women’s rights. Yet a basic commitment to ending ties with Al- Qaeda, ending violence and accepting the (changeable) Afghan constitution may entice some.

But not many, I fear. The counter-intuitive July date for military withdrawal has handed the Taliban an immediate propaganda victory, with the real possibility of military victory, too. In a battle of endurance, you do not tell your opponent when you’re going to give up. Why should the Taliban negotiate when the perception is they are winning?

This may be just the perception, and NATO chiefs would point out that they have never been defeated tactically or operationally. But in calling for negotiations they are admitting the prospect of strategic defeat. Indeed, historical analysis shows that no insurgency with the strategic depth and operational flexibility of the Taliban has ever been defeated.

For the West to begin negotiations from a position of weakness could spell disaster for Afghanistan’s future. Without a resounding power sharing agreement that encompasses most insurgent elements, Afghanistan will face civil war when NATO leaves. The lesson of past counter insurgencies holds that governments must be in a relative position of strength before starting talks with those who seek to undermine their power.

The one thing the Taliban have more of than the West is time. They have a long term view of strategy and it is one that is not worried about human rights nor wavered by public opinion. Meanwhile, the West will continue to conduct its war with annual fiscal cycles, media response, the Geneva Convention and general and presidential elections as factors in planning military operations.

For all its might, the West seems weak, both to ordinary Afghans and the Taliban alike.

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