Talking to the Taliban

As the United States fights a brutal counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, some commanders are trying a new tactic: negotiating with the Taliban.

In a dramatic shift, some U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan are now trying to negotiate with Afghan Taliban fighters to encourage them to "reintegrate." Although no program yet exists, the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul recently created a "cell" to address these efforts and formalize this outreach -- a technique some commanders report they are already using.

Here in Logar province, commanders say they have contacted and negotiated with enemy fighters, even with no military guidelines in place. "I think it's very important" said Col. David Haight, who commands Task Force Spartan, a brigade that covers troubled Wardak and Logar provinces.

"We have talked to people who have American blood on their hands," he added, citing Gen. David Petraeus' doctrine: "You can't kill or capture your way out of an insurgency."

Haight, an experienced and energetic infantry officer, is in charge of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade. His area of operations consists of two hotly contested provinces near Kabul, where he has pursued an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign. He and his troops attempt to clear out rebels and build up the local economy while working with Afghan security forces. But, he notes, without more troops he can't keep some districts out of the hands of the Taliban -- and is willing to try less conventional measures.

Matthew Sherman, a U.S. State Department official who advises Haight's brigade, said: "There are many ways to get people off the battlefield. You can kill them, you can capture them, and you can talk to them, and we're exploring all those options" in an effort that is "literally new."

The 3rd Brigade has received informal guidance on how to deal with enemy leaders in the form of "the three Ds": define, dialogue, and desist. Soldiers define a Taliban member's "significance" in terms of his reach and influence. "You know, who is this guy?" Haight said. Then, dialogue, so "in the future, [you] gain some guy's trust." Finally, desist. "Obviously, try to get him to commit to the process with a locally arranged reduction in violence."

Sherman notes that soldiers have attempted this technique with low-level local Taliban. In the future, he thinks, military forces will focus on "reintegrating" tactical and operational fighters. But the Afghan government, he says, will "[decide] on reconciliation with strategic and political leaders."

Haight says that though the insurgency's strategic leaders may reside in Pakistan, the actual fighters his soldiers deal with are locals. He cites Baraki Barak, a mountainous region of Logar province, as a telling example. "The people that we're fighting here on a daily basis in Baraki Barak are not from Pakistan," he said. "You know where they are from? They are from Baraki Barak!" And talking with them to help ameliorate fighting in their area might help.

Such a program has a well-known precedent in Iraq. There, U.S. forces talked to and even sometimes bribed Sunni tribesmen for their cooperation and for reduced violence. Sherman points out that there was initially U.S. resistance to the ultimately successful program.

He also says it refined the way the coalition forces understood the various opposition movements and groups in Iraq. "We made a fundamental shift in how we looked at [Shiite militant leader Moqtada al-] Sadr. There was [Sadr's Mahdi Army]. There were the 'special groups' [of militia members]. There were political actors, and there were just criminals. But by looking at them in a new way we could focus on fighting the groups that were a real threat."

The new "cell" examining these outreach efforts is headed by Graeme Lamb, a retired British three-star general who worked in Iraq and was instrumental in talks that led to U.S. negotiation with Sunni tribesmen.

Among Afghan government officials, the subject of reconciliation comes up frequently. Governor Attiqullah Lodin, who heads the government in Logar province, claimed in a news conference this week that hundreds of anti-government forces have laid down their arms.

In Maydan Shahr, the small dusty capital of troubled Wardak province, opinion on the street favors negotiations. "You can send every American that exists to Afghanistan, but that won't stop the fighting," argued a local pharmacy owner. "The only way to stop the fighting is by talking to the enemy."

David Furst/AFP/Getty Images


Time for India to Play Hardball with China

With its recent provocations, Beijing seems to think New Delhi is still the naive young power of yesteryear. It's time for India's leaders to prove otherwise.

For a while it seemed as though no action of Beijing's could provoke India's ire -- and that there was no length to which India was unwilling to go to appease China. Earlier this year, reports of Chinese incursions into Indian territory were dismissed by the defense ministry in New Delhi as media-manufactured hyperbole. India heeded Beijing's requests to restrict the political activities of the Dalai Lama, whose government-in-exile sits in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala. In 2006, New Delhi even enforced a penal code dating back to the days of the British Raj to put the Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsunde under armed surveillance, outraging the 100,000-strong Tibetan community in exile, which pointed to the irony of democratic India invoking colonial-era laws to suppress their peaceful protest against an authoritarian regime.

But this week, Beijing pushed India too far. It emerged that the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi has been issuing irregular visas to Kashmiri Indians, stapling a handwritten document to their passports rather than pasting printed copies as it does with other Indians. A separatist struggle, funded and backed by Pakistan, has raged on in Kashmir with renewed vigour since the late 1980s. By treating Kashmiri visa applicants differently from other Indians, Beijing is not merely recognising Kashmir as a disputed territory; it is officially refusing to accept Kashmiris' right to full Indian citizenship. In other words, it is telling India who can, and cannot, be an Indian citizen -- and telling Kashmiris that they cannot rise above their regionalist prejudices to embrace a larger pluralistic identity.

India has responded with uncharacteristic swiftness, issuing a directive barring all such visa holders from getting on China-bound planes. But for all the bluster, Indian government officials are acutely aware that this is yet another ad hoc response by India to what is the most recent in a series of Chinese provocations. First, Beijing attempted in March to block a $2.9 billion Asian Development Bank loan to India on the grounds that some of the cash was intended for use in Arunachal Pradesh, a region China claims as its own. This was followed by a volley in the People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, warning India against increasing its troop levels in Arunachal Pradesh (India's action was a delayed response to China's own troop deployments in the region). "India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China," it tauntingly advised.

Since the 1950s, China has viewed India with disdain, as an odd patchwork of a nation with pretensions to greatness which must be kept in constant check. China's condescension was complemented by the generosity of India's dovish first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who dismissed the very idea of Chinese expansionism as "naive." According to Nehru's most recent biographer, when Eisenhower offered India a permanent seat on the Security Council, Nehru turned it down, urging him to offer it to Beijing instead. But in November 1962, such illusions of Third-World solidarity lay shattered as Chinese soldiers marched into India, occupying a substantial portion of contested territory on the Tibetan plateau. China's occupation of Arunachal Pradesh seemed unstoppable, but Beijing issued a cease-fire and retreated as American jumbo jets, flown to aid India's assault, began landing in West Bengal.

Today, China has drawn a circle around India. Beginning in Pakistan (to which Beijing supplied nuclear knowhow) in the northwest, it runs through Nepal (to which it exported Maoism) and Burma (where it shields a dictatorship) in the east, ending in Sri Lanka in the south. This struggle for influence stretches beyond Asia: China and India are now engaged in an aggressive battle for resources in Africa. In its bid to play catch-up with China, India has often abandoned its democratic ideals by accommodating brutal regimes, particularly in Burma and Sudan.

But what distinguishes the two countries is the manner in which they respond to secessionist movements. China's preferred solution has been to engineer demographic shifts by repopulating restive regions with Han Chinese. India, in stark contrast, has responded to separatist movements by offering them greater autonomy. India, after all, is an unnatural nation, encompassing continental diversity within its frontiers, refusing to homogenize humans like milk, deriving its sovereignty by bypassing all the traditional determinants of nationhood -- language, culture, ethnicity, and religion, among countless other distinguishing attributes -- that have led people elsewhere to seek exclusivist homelands defined by such traits.

Nothing agitates India more than foreign attempts to undermine the pluralism it has spent six decades nurturing. By issuing separate visas to Kashmiri Indians, Beijing did precisely that.

Indian democracy vexes Beijing. If India can guarantee fundamental rights to its diverse citizens while managing a growth rate not far from China's, why, someone is bound to ask, can China not do the same? For many in the West, China's economic prosperity is a precursor to political freedom for its people. But this theory, as China scholar Minxin Pei has argued, ignores the important fact that an authoritarian state is less likely to loosen its hold on a wealthy country than it would be to forego the control of an impoverished one. This accounts for China's censorship at home and the promotion of secessionism abroad. But it also means that it is China, and not India, that is more fragile and insecure. The Dalai Lama is India's trump card.  All India has to do is play hardball.