Behind Cautious Signal, a Decision for Afghan Peace Talks

KABUL (IPS) — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s very cautiously-worded support for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban leadership in an interview published Monday is only the first public signal of a policy decision by the Barack Obama administration to support a political settlement between the Hamid Karzai regime and the Taliban, an official of McChrystal’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command has revealed in an interview with IPS.

Speaking to the Financial Times, McChrystal couched his position on negotiations in terms of an abstract support for negotiated settlements of wars, saying, “I believe that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome.” The ISAF commander avoided a direct answer to the question of whether the Taliban could play a role in a future Afghan government.

When pressed by the interviewer on the issue, McChrystal would only say that “any Afghan can play a role if they focus on the future and not the past.”

The ISAF official, who spoke with IPS on condition that he would not be named, was much more candid about the centrality of peace negotiations with the Taliban leadership in the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and about the understanding of the ISAF command that the Taliban leadership is independent of al Qaeda and is already positioning itself for a political settlement.

The official said the objective of the troop surge and the ISAF strategy accompanying it is to support a negotiated political settlement. “The story of the next 18 months is the story of establishing the conditions under which reconciliation will take place,” said the official.

“Reconciliation” is the term used within the U.S. military for an understanding between the Karzai regime and the leadership of the insurgency, whereas “reintegration” refers to a strategy for bringing mid-level Taliban commanders and their troops back into society.

The counterinsurgency strategy now being mounted in Afghanistan by ISAF “is aimed at providing time and space” for “reconciliation”, according to the official, as well as governance reforms and increasing the capacity of the national army and police force during that 18-month period.

The ISAF official said there has been a debate among U.S. officials about “the terms on which the Taliban will become part of the political fabric”. The debate is not on whether the Taliban movement will be participating in the Afghan political system, however, but on whether or not the administration could accept the participation of a specific individual — Mullah Omar, the leader of the organisation and former chief of state of the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001 — in the political future of Afghanistan.

Some U.S. officials have argued that the Taliban leader should be barred from participation because of his role in protecting Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 terror attacks and refusing to hand over the al Qaeda leader in the weeks that followed the attacks.

The official suggested that the Obama administration and its NATO allies need to reach a consensus about the issue and that recent events make the present moment “seem like a good time to deal with that.”

Despite their interest in that issue, the ISAF official said, the United States won’t determine the outcome of the negotiations. “Reconciliation is considered to be in the purview of the Afghan government and international mediators,” the official said.

Nevertheless, the official left no doubt that the United States will participate in the negotiations. “I don’t think anybody is under the misconception we are not going to negotiate,” he said.

U.S. participation appears necessary to get the Taliban to agree to end its resistance and reach a political solution. The Taliban has insisted in published statements that it will not participate in peace talks that would not result in the withdrawal of foreign troops.

That demand raises the question of whether the administration would be willing to discuss the complete withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of a settlement.

The last time a demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal was negotiated in an international agreement was the Iraqi security pact of 2008. The George W. Bush administration had insisted that the United States would only agree to a “condition-based” withdrawal plan, but in the end, it accepted a deadline for complete withdrawal.

The ISAF official said the decision on that issue would be made by the Obama administration and its NATO allies, but that the ISAF command would have “no problem” with the negotiation of a timetable in conjunction with a political settlement.

The official suggested that the argument used to justify the troop surge in Afghanistan — that the Taliban would allow al Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan if it were allowed to consolidate power in large areas — has now been abandoned.

“There are certainly divisions between Taliban and al Qaeda,” said the official. He cited statements by Taliban officials that “the state was hijacked by al Qaeda, and we’re not going to let that happen again.”

The argument that the Taliban leadership would be unwilling to negotiate unless persuaded by increasing U.S. military pressures over the next 18 months that they are “losing” also appears to have been abandoned by the administration and the ISAF command.

The official cited a “growing trend” in intelligence analysis concluding that the Taliban “is positioning itself for a settlement.”

Seeking a negotiated solution “is the smart thing for them to do,” the ISAF official said. “They are probably at the zenith of their power,” he explained, and may be anticipating serious challenges to their hold on some of the present Taliban territorial base in the south.

In addition, the Taliban see a “fairly strong international commitment” to a political settlement of the war, he said.

Although he acknowledged that the Taliban leadership wants a political settlement of the war, the ISAF official offered a new rationale for continuation of the war, suggesting that it is “necessary to continue to put pressure on the insurgent leaders to keep negotiations going.”

[The admission that negotiations with the Taliban leadership for a settlement would be at the expense of al Qaeda influence in the country follows Taliban statements in recent months suggesting a new willingness to meet the central U.S. demand that the Taliban separate itself from al Qaeda. In September, Mullah Omar declared the Taliban has no interest in a global jihadist campaign and in December a Taliban statement said the organisation is ready to provide “legal guarantees” against “meddling” in foreign countries — an obvious reference to any al Qaeda bases – as part of a settlement involving withdrawal of foreign forces.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Phil said on January 27th, 2010 at 11:58am #

    Some U.S. officials have argued that the Taliban leader should be barred from participation because of his … refusing to hand over the al Qaeda leader in the weeks that followed the attacks.

    I remembered the Taliban leadership willingly offering to try Osama or hand him right over into custody. Funny how fast that piece of history got rewritten, isn’t it….

  2. Josie Michel-Bruening said on January 28th, 2010 at 9:37am #

    I feel somehow relieved by reading about the more often remarked intentions for negotiaton with Taliban leaders by the Obama administration.
    However, why does nobody mention the following?
    According to an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1998, the CIA’s intervention in Afghanistan preceded the 1979 Soviet invasion. This decision of the Carter Administration in 1979 to intervene and destabilise Afghanistan is the root cause of Afghanistan’s destruction as a nation,
    Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998
    Posted at 15 October 2001
    According to that the CIA had supported the insurgent Taliban and Mudjahedin against the democratically elected Nadjibullah regime having begun with an agricultural reform and opening the universities for women.

    Well, I wish the Obama administration good luck and all of us for winning peace as soon as possible.

  3. Maryb said on January 28th, 2010 at 11:13am #

    There was a big conference on Afghanistan in London today with 69 nations represented including the US of course. Clinton and Karzai have had much publicity during their visits. The BBC report is here.

    The Taliban have already said that the whole thing is a propaganda ploy so there seems little promise of this flim flam taking off. Brown is electioneering and would like to be seen as a leader on the world stage. I laughed when I saw the title of the High Office of Oversight mentioned in the report. It sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.


    – Handover security duties in Afghan provinces starting in late 2010 or early 2011
    – Funds to reintegrate Taliban who cut ties with al-Qaeda
    – Hold a 2010 summit in Kabul to develop concrete plans for the Afghan government programme
    – Backs start of discussions on a new Afghan-led IMF programme
    – Increase share of aid delivered through the Afghan government to 50% in two years
    – Increase Afghan military strength to 171,600 and police numbers to 134,000 by October 2011

  4. Maryb said on January 29th, 2010 at 4:07am #

    Will a musical be made next – Springtime in Kabul?

    The Financial Times –

    Allies rally their forces for spring offensive
    By Lionel Barber in Helmand

    Published: January 29 2010 02:00

    With the planned allied counter-offensive against the Taliban just weeks away, Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan, is heaving with activity.

    Hercules C-17 heavy transport aircraft roar in and out, while Chinook, Merlin and Puma helicopters kick up clouds of red dust. A deserted airstrip three years ago, Camp Bastion, located in the violent Afghan province of Helmand, is today handling more cargo than London’s Gatwick airport and more traffic than Luton.

    There is a renewed sense of confidence in the Nato mission after a year of drift in which the US and UK-led coalition, by their own admission, lost the initiative across the whole theatre. In the past year the number of Nato casualties has doubled, with British forces sustaining heavy losses in the south.

    Officials speak of “hubris” in underestimating the enemy. Now, despite reports of daily casualties, largely from deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the coalition appears to have clarified its mission.

    At least this was the impression this visitor took away after a three-day trip to Afghanistan.

    The mood in the British camp is cautiously upbeat. The Americans are arriving in force (30,000 extra troops by August), and the favourite Chinooks are now on stream – delays were, say officers, due to a lack of trained crew rather than cuts or incompetence.

    General Stanley McChrystal, the charismatic allied commander, has changed the weather. “Gen Stan” has switched focus from simply killing insurgents to protecting and winning the support of the Afghan people. Crucially, the plan assumes that Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, is ready to take on the role of wartime commander-in-chief.

    Mr Karzai is described by a western official in Kabul as “Clinton without the sex” – a consummate politician with a vast network of contacts among the country’s tribes. But he is also seen as vacillating and a weak administrator torn between loyalties to his own Pashtun tribe and the knowledge that the conflict is, at heart, a Pashtun insurgency.


    (Registration needed)

  5. Maryb said on January 30th, 2010 at 11:26am #

    New postcodes for Guantanamo?

    ‘Night raids are only the first step in the American detention process in Afghanistan. Suspects are usually sent to one among a series of prisons on US military bases around the country. There are officially nine such jails, called Field Detention Sites in military parlance. They are small holding areas, often just a clutch of cells divided by plywood, and are mainly used for prisoner interrogation.

    In the early years of the war, these were but way stations for those en route to Bagram prison, a facility with a notorious reputation for abusive behavior. As a spotlight of international attention fell on Bagram in recent years, wardens there cleaned up their act and the mistreatment of prisoners began to shift to the little-noticed Field Detention Sites.’

    January 30, 2010, 4:01 pm
    South Asia

    Terror comes at night in Afghanistan
    By Anand Gopal