Afghanistan News Recap

Iran in Afghanistan

Today’s New York Times has a front page story on Iran’s increasingly cozy relationship with the Karzai government.  The U.S. should not be surprised that Iran is trying to influence the Afghan government with financial support.  Iran has a 582 mile border with Afghanistan, close to a million Afghan refugees living within its borders, sees an enormous percentage of the Afghan drug trade traffic through its land, and population and is traditionally protective of the minority Shia Hazara population.  In a press conference, Karzai pointed out that U.S. contributions dwarf those given by Iran or other nations.  Furthermore, there is no indication that Karzai ever pledged to refuse Iranian aid.  This news development, however, does indicate troubling continual erosion in the relationship between Karzai and the U.S.   If Karzai actually believes his regime could survive “without the West’s help”, he might be tempted to exclude the U.S. in peace negotiations.  This potential development should greatly concern policymakers.

Afghanistan Study Group Member Juan Cole has an interesting take on the Iran story arguing that the scandal demonstrates that Iran and the U.S are “de facto Allies in Afghanistan”.  He goes on to say that the Iranians have a long history of animosity towards the Taliban:

“The Iranians hate the Taliban and it is mutual.  The two almost went to war in with one another in 1998 over the killing of Iranian diplomats at Mazar.  Iran backed the Northern Alliance in its dark days when al Qaeda had it bottled up in the North East and Karzai is still backed by Northern Alliance War Lords”.

Karzai’s heated rhetoric may simply reflect political posturing related to a ban on private security contractors.  These security firms have gotten a lot of negative attention due to the killing of civilians.  However, they also play an important role in providing security for development projects all over Afghanistan.  Simply put, without security contractors, much of the U.S. supported construction and development cannot take place.  Karzai may try to extract U.S. concessions before agreeing to postpone the ban.

Afghanistan Study Group Member Bernard Finel thinks the benefits of security contractors are overblown.  In demanding a ban on security personnel, Karzai is demonstrating leadership “for the first time in a decade,” writes Finel; furthermore development projects are “long-run and minor”, essentially a “trivial” issue in comparison to more important questions surrounding Afghan legitimacy.  By demanding that the U.S. remove contractors, Karzai is reclaiming sovereignty.  Finel concludes that a successful COIN strategy cannot be dependent on mercenary forces:

A development-centric COIN approach supported with 500,000 well-trained American troops is one thing.  A development-centric COIN approach sustained by a hodge-podge of bribes, private militias, and mercenaries is quite another.”

Is the War Going Well?

There is a real disconnect between the press releases from the Pentagon and those coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan.  General Petraeus is promoting recent military successes in the Kandahar offensive.  Thanks to increased operations by both U.S. special operations and Afghan allies, vast stretches of the province have seen increased security, but is the tide really turning?  The same day the Washington Post published Petreaus’s remarks, the paper also published a story on Af-Pak relations casting doubt on the general’s statements:

“In interviews, [Pakistani] military and intelligence officers said they were skeptical of assertion by U.S. military leaders that coalition forces have turned the corner…calling that narrative a ‘desperate ’attempt to convince the American public that there is progress in the war”

Taliban officials similarly say that the “peace talks” are mostly hype.  As Michael Semple from the Carr center suggests, the presence of backchannels with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have been used to communicate with the enemy for years and are standard operating procedures for Afghanistan.

So the question remains:  Whose version of the war should we believe?  Harvard professor and Afghanistan Study Group Member Stephen Walt does an excellent job explaining why we should be skeptical of Pentagon press releases.  Firstly, he argues that it is in U.S. interests to play up positive developments in the war in order to encourage insurgents to defect.  In other words these reports could be a psychological operation aimed at the insurgency.  Secondly, even if the gains in Kandahar are real, the Taliban can still regroup in their Pakistani sanctuary (with Pakistani support).   There is very little evidence to suggest that the current gains are permanent, but there is ample historical precedent to suggest that the recent gains are only temporary.

“The Taliban Will Never Negotiate as Long as They Think They are Winning”

Robert Naiman questions a piece of conventional wisdom on potential negotiations with the Taliban.  The conventional wisdom says that the Taliban will never compromise as long as they have the upper hand in the conflict.  Naiman points out that in any conflict, one side almost always seems to have the upper hand.  This view seems to preclude negotiated settlements from ever successfully ending conflicts—a view contradicted by numerous historical examples.   The real problem, suggests Naiman, is not that that the Taliban refuses to negotiate in the current environment, but rather that while they are winning, the Taliban makes harsh demands such as the removal of all U.S. troops.  In other words, a more accurate statement would read “the U.S. will never negotiate as long as they are losing the war.”

One caveat should be added to Naiman’s persuasive argument.  In order for meaningful negotiations to take place, both sides must recognize that military victory is not imminent.  If the U.S. believes they are on the cusp of breaking the insurgency’s back, there is no incentive for the U.S. to negotiate.  Likewise, if the Taliban feel they can hold out for two months, then march on Kabul, they will not enter negotiations in good faith.   Simply put, if both sides believe that the costs of continuing the war, outweigh the benefits of continued fighting, there will be an incentive to negotiate regardless of which side has the upper hand.  In Afghanistan, after over three decade of war, including nine years of US involvement, neither side has a clear path to victory.  That is ample incentive for both sides to sit down and talk.

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