- Thomas Ruttig: Real reconciliation in Afghanistan
- Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman: Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy
- Brian Katulis: The U.S. still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan
- Gerard Russell: Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment
- Michael Waltz: Obama's dangerous message
- Masood Aziz: Are we making the same mistakes again in Afghanistan?
- Douglas A. Ollivant: In Afghanistan, huge challenges remain
Real reconciliation in Afghanistan
The announcement of the troop drawdown by President Obama last night will not change the military balance on the ground in the short term, because the drawdown will start slowly. More problematic is the signal it sends to Afghans -- and I mean those outside positions of power who are afraid of the consequences when the drawdown ends, when international attention and development assistance to Afghanistan will dwindle. This announcement, they fear, runs parallel to a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban that may emerge during this period. For them, today was the beginning of the end of the world's support for Afghanistan, for the third time after 1989 (the Soviet withdrawal) and the 1990s factional wars.
Despite all the claims of progress put out by NATO, the U.S. troop surge has not damaged the insurgency beyond repair, and has not shifted the strategic balance away from the Taliban. The Taliban's network structure is elastic; although many mid-ranking Taliban have been killed during the surge, they were quickly replaced -- often, it appears, by younger and more radical newcomers who are likely less inclined to talk. In cases of claimed success in clearing various districts, whether in Kandahar, Helmand or Kunduz, the fighters just went to the next district or laid-low in Pakistan for a while.
And despite claims that there was no Taliban spring offensive, the Taliban have killed four provincial and even region-level police commanders as well as one provincial governor, while two other governors narrowly escaped death. For the first time, the Taliban managed to injure a NATO general. And these are just the prominent victims.
Equally important, if not more so, are the political results of the surge. Instead of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, the coalition actually closed the door with the start of the surge, just when there was an internal Taliban debate about the wisdom and morality of suicide bombing as carried out by Mullah Dadullah, and Taliban voices began expressing concern about the bloodletting in the country. The surge shut up those dissenting voices. A chance was squandered. It will be more difficult now to reopen these doors, although some channels seem to be open again. But make no mistake: Channels and contacts are not "talks" and no "negotiations" yet. The mistrust is mutual: The U.S. and many Afghans do not believe that the Taliban want peace, and the Taliban did not perceive the surge as a peace offer.
If the drawdown is coupled with further confidence building measures and the inclusion of important sectors of the Afghan society beyond the Kabul government in shaping an approach to "reconciliation" that is not seen as surrendering rights and freedoms, moral and political high-ground might be recaptured. This would be much more important than clearing a few dusty districts.
Thomas Ruttig is a Co-Director and Senior Analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think-tank. He speaks Pashto and Dari.