March 13, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Afghan Political Scorecard: Taliban Violence ? 1 Peaceful Opposition ? 0

  • While most reports concerning Afghanistan’s future have focused almost entirely on the killing of Afghani civilians by a U.S. soldier, and before that on the burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base, what may ultimately prove to be far more important to the country’s future are the discussions taking place between the U.S. and the Taliban outside of the country.


  • Because the talks are being held abroad ? and behind closed doors ? there is much confusion about the policies that may ultimately emerge from the forum.


  • The political opposition in Afghanistan, which was allied with the West for the last decade but has been sidelined from these talks, is not banking on a favorable outcome. It’s now renewing old alliances and rearming to protect its interests after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. The net result is another heavily armed political group.


  • Civil society and woman’s groups, entities that have gained the most from the protection afforded by the Western presence, also have the most to lose from an expanding role of the Taliban in the political process. To avoid damage being done, the U.S. would be wise to make a change to the talks, and directly involve the political opposition, civil society, and women’s groups in the talks.


  • To avoid damage being done, the U.S. would be wise to make a change to the talks, and directly involve the political opposition, civil society, and women’s groups in the talks.

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The U.S.-led effort to chart a course toward a peaceful future in Afghanistan has been shaken by two recent events. First, the news on February 21st that U.S. military forces had burned Korans at Bagram Air Base led to several days of violent protest outside several U.S. military installations across the nation. Second, on March 11th, a U.S. soldier left his post in southern Afghanistan, forced his way into several homes, and shot a number of local civilians, killing as many as 16 according to latest reports. While it's possible that the long-term repercussions of these events may ultimately undo years of Western efforts to stabilize the country, the most important aspect of the Afghan political process is taking place not in Kabul nor any of the major cities in Afghanistan, but rather 1,200 miles away in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, which sits on the northeast coast of the Arabian peninsula.

The discussions taking place in Doha between the U.S. and representatives of the Taliban have the potential to intractably shape the Afghan political landscape during the period leading up to ? and certainly after ? U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

The motivation for the U.S. to conduct these talks with the Taliban is somewhat rational: The U.S. leadership has concluded that it is unable to defeat the Taliban militarily - not least because the Taliban is not a single group, but groupings of different parts of the Afghan population, who often see the group and its aims differently from the U.S., and also because of years of faulty strategies -- and so in any post-U.S. withdrawal Afghanistan, the Taliban will be a powerful contender.

Other states with interests in Afghanistan's future, such as Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Iran for example -- realize this, and are likely to negotiate with the Taliban (if they aren't already). The U.S. realizes it needs to recognize this reality, and so is seeking to see if there are elements within the Taliban that it could align with U.S. interests.

But at the same time, notably absent from the talks are representatives of two key entities with a vested interest in the outcome: the political opposition and civil society, both of which feel ignored and betrayed. The U.S. seems not to have considered their interests or feelings when arranging these talks. As a consequence, and of critical geostrategic importance, the opposition is not banking on a favorable outcome and is choosing instead to resurrect old alliances and consider a return to past strategies of violence.


Afghan Political Opposition Sidelined in Strategic Talks

In a very real sense, many prominent figures of the Afghan political opposition were model citizens and, in many cases, some of the U.S.?s most reliable allies over the past decade: they participated in elections, served in parliament, formed legitimate political parties, and led government ministries.

The core motivation driving the transformation from fighters to parliamentarians was simple: they stood to gain more by working within the political fold than by fighting against it from outside. They surrendered their guns and renounced violence; in turn, they gained a degree of political power, even if it was to be shared with their erstwhile civil war foes.

It appears, however, that those strategic calculations are being upended as a result of the Qatar talks. In Doha, the U.S. is now sitting across the table from the Taliban, a group that has both Afghan and American blood on its hands, and has been the primary driver of conflict for the past decade. Giving them a principal voice in how power will be shared in Afghanistan after 2014 is viewed by the opposition as nothing less than a tangible reward for the Taliban's violent actions. The opposition also believes that despite its support for the US, which included fighting alongside US troops in operations designed to drive out the Taliban, its willingness to give up its weapons, and its support for democratic processes and institutions, it is now being abandoned.

In addition, because the talks are being held abroad ? and behind closed doors ? there is much confusion about the policies that may ultimately emerge from the forum. Broadly speaking, there could be two possible outcomes to the talks. First, they might result in some manner of settlement in which the Taliban would gain a political role in Afghanistan. The opposition argues that any such reshaping of the power structure without their input will be to their detriment.

The second possibility is that the Qatar talks will simply fail to achieve any definitive end product, and this would also work against the opposition's long-range objectives. Given the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops and deep cuts in the size and budget of the Afghan security forces, the opposition believes its interests won't be adequately protected from an increasingly assertive insurgency that enjoys foreign support.


The Opposition Reassesses Its Strategy

Both of these outcomes, and the subsequent disequilibrium in the Afghan political environment, have profoundly complicated the opposition's cost-benefit calculations ... and it is preparing for the contingencies. Disparate members of the various opposition factions are reaching out to one another, strengthening previous alliances, resurrecting former militias, and ? most troubling ? procuring arms. The net result is that the political opposition is systematically transforming itself into a heavily armed political group.

Caught in the middle of these machinations are the civil society and women's groups, both of which have made tremendous gains in the last decade due largely to the breathing space afforded them by the substantial presence of foreign military, diplomatic, and economic organizations. Similarly, it will be these same groups that stand to lose the most as the safety net for civil activism begins to disappear.

All is not yet lost, however. Perhaps the only potential good news at this point is that there is still time for alternative ? and more constructive ? outcomes since the Qatar talks are far from reaching a conclusion. Given the fact that broad-based settlements are more likely to succeed, one potentially helpful course of action now is to directly involve the political opposition and civil society in the talks. They clearly have a stake in the future, and should thus be given a fair say in determining how that future unfolds.

Absent this direct participation, it will be up to the U.S. to, at minimum, take all stakeholders into confidence to allay their fears. In the meantime Afghanistan braces for what comes next.



Near-term Forecast:

  • With an increasingly uncertain future, the opposition will seek to hedge its bets by continuing to seek a political voice within the political process while also preparing to protect its interests with force outside of it.

Long-term forecast:

  • The burning of Korans and killing of Afghan civilians prove once again an inescapable strategic maxim: the isolated actions of privates can all too easily undercut the long-range vision of generals. In a war fought as much for minds as it is for territory, the West lost considerable cognitive ground in Afghanistan in the past few weeks that may be beyond reclamation.



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