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Can We Bribe the Taliban?

By Archives October 28, 2008

“We are not going to win this war.” Those were the words of Brigadier Carleton-Smith, the commander of NATO troops in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Upon returning from the war-torn country, conservative British parliamentarian David Davis conceded that without a change in strategy, the coalition will “face disaster.” Even Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the United States joint chiefs of staff, acknowledges the war is “not going in the right direction.”
If a purely military solution is impossible, then it’s time to consider the previously unthinkable; we may have to bribe and negotiate our way to peace in Afghanistan. And the Bush administration’s nomination of General David H. Petraeus, the architect behind the surge in Iraq, as the next chief of United States Central Command is a good first step.
Although the surge strategy’s centerpiece was an increase of the United States’ military strength in Iraq, on the order of half a dozen brigades, it was hardly the key to the plan’s success. Far more critical was the diplomatic campaign, taken up by in part by General Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and his predecessor Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, to co-opt the Sunni tribesmen of Western Iraq against foreign jihadists. This manifested in the “Anbar Awakening”; which quickly spread to Baghdad, Mosul, Diyala, Babil and Salah ad-Din as Sunni insurgents rejected Al Qaeda’s zealotry in favour of American currency and a seat at the federal table.
American politicians from across the political spectrum, including Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, now argue for a similar surge in Afghanistan. We will begin to see the outlines of a new strategy when General Petraeus assumes office on Oct. 31 and announces his plans for the region; but diplomatic engagement of the Taliban is sure to be part of the mix.
Saudi Arabia may already be laying the groundwork for talks. Apparently, a series of meetings were hosted between Sept. 24-27 by Saudi King Abdullah, involving 11 delegates of the Taliban and Afghan government officials. When asked for his opinion on such negotiations, American Secretary of Defence Robert Gates commented that the conflict should be resolved by “political means.”
Now, as with any shift in strategy, there will be naysayers aplenty. As such, we have to recognize that what worked in Iraq may not work in Afghanistan. Whereas Iraq’s Sunni tribes rebelled against the harsh ideology of Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was known for implementing one of the strictest interpretations of Sharia Law ever seen in the Muslim world. Whereas the Sunni insurgency was largely contained within Iraq’s borders, the Taliban insurgency rages on both sides of the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whereas Iraq has been a cradle of civilization from the city-state of Sumer to the Abbasid Caliphate, the Afghan region of Central Asia has been historically ungovernable.
With that said, it’s also important to recognize that the Taliban is not the monolithic organization portrayed on CNN. While Mullah Omar may be the nominal Emir, men like Mullah Dadullah, Jalaludin Haqqani, and Baitullah Mehsud, amongst others, all control their own loosely co-ordinated factions.
Some of these factions operate in Afghanistan; others in Pakistan. Some are heavily penetrated and influenced by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency; others are actively fighting the Pakistani State. Some are heavily involved in the opium trade; others vociferously condemn it. Some are ideologically committed to a global caliphate; others are merely Pashtun nationalists eager for their fair share of power.
Frankly, in most cases, the Taliban is only a Pashtun tribal movement; not the philosophical hearth-mate of Al-Qaeda. In a country with a literacy rate of 28 per cent, and an unemployment rate of 40 per cent, many young Pashtuns (who can’t read the Qur’an) are simply fighting out of desperation rather than religious zeal.
Of course, we won’t be able to buy every last Taliban guerrilla – but we should be able to buy enough of them to pressure the zealots, push out Al-Qaeda, and stabilize the region.
The British colonial authorities were never able to gain full control over the area by force of arms. Instead they bargained with Pashtun tribal elders, or maliks. Under the deal, the maliks retained their autonomy in exchange for maintaining peace between the tribesmen and the British Raj – thus allowing commerce to continue unabated.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s messy and corrupt but, according to history, it’s the only thing that’s ever worked in Afghanistan.
A few grim hangers-on within the Neo-Con far-right, still assert that the Afghan question can be answered militarily. The Soviet Union thought the same thing in 1988 when they had 104,000 heavily armed Red army soldiers and 329,000 Afghan army troops at their disposal; with far looser rules of engagement. Needless to say, they were wrong.
We can’t afford to repeat their mistakes. So, it’s time to embrace the divide-and-conquer ethos of our colonial ancestors by letting General Petraeus bribe and negotiate with the Taliban.