Peace talks involving the Taliban and its allies are apparently under way, according to the Asia Times (AT), and from most accounts a deal appears doable. AT's Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad reported Sept. 11 and 15 that, under the auspices of the Pakistan military and intelligence services, "serious negotiations" were taking place, with Saudi Arabia serving as the go-between to the U.S.
That the antagonists are looking for a way out of the nine-year war is not surprising, given the deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan and the rising tide of opposition in Europe and the U.S. to continuing the war. What is surprising is that at the same time as there looks to be a possible diplomatic breakthrough, the U.S. has launched a major military operation in Kandahar.
Is the new offensive a cover for the secret talks or an effort by the U.S. military to derail any possibility of serious negotiations?
According to the AT, while Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has not been directly involved in the talks, according to a "Pakistan security official" the elusive cleric "has shown a positive and flexible attitude." The talks also include Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been a major thorn in the side of the occupation troops, particularly the U.S.
There are several sticking points, but none of them seem insurmountable. The Taliban want to talk about the 60 Afghans currently imprisoned in Guantanamo, while the U.S. wants to make sure al-Qaeda can no longer operate from within Afghanistan.
On the first point Pakistan appears hopeful that the U.S. will release the detainees. It "would be a good will gesture from the American side," a Pakistani official told the AT, "and also set the stage for negotiations between the Taliban and Washington."
Regarding al-Qaeda, the Taliban say they are willing to make sure that no "outside" forces use Afghanistan as a springboard to attack other nations. The Taliban have agreed to expel the terrorist organization, but they argue that al-Qaeda be given "honorable treatment." What that means is not clear, but it is not likely to become a major sticking point. U.S. intelligence says al-Qaeda has virtually no presence in Afghanistan. According to Shahzad, the terrorist organization is more interested in the Central Asian "Stans" and southern Russia. On Sept 9, the group set off a bomb in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz that killed 18 people.
According to AT, al-Qaeda would rather get the U.S. out of Afghanistan than for it to have an in-country presence, and the organization would have no objection to the Taliban cutting a deal with Washington.
What the Taliban want
The Americans also want the right to keep troops in Northern Afghanistan, the home of its major in-country allies, the Northern Alliance, but, according to officials close to the talks, the Taliban want all foreign troops out.
The Taliban originally demanded the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan that existed at the time of the 2001 invasion. But in Ramadan talks held in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, "Taliban representatives indicated a willingness to accept a more broad-based political setup in Afghanistan," says Shahzad.
The Taliban are still hostile to some of their internal opponents, ranging from former mujahedeen leaders to men like General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance. However, according to Pakistan officials, the group is willing to work with other people associated with their opponents, provided "they have a clean reputation and have never been involved in bloodshed." The "clean reputation" refers to graft. As for the "bloodshed," all sides have at one point or the other fought one another, so it is unclear what the Taliban mean.
"The process of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is gaining momentum," says Shahzad, "with the United States and its allies escalating their efforts to get America out of the Afghan quagmire."
Why the U.S. military offensive?
So then why has the U.S. launched an offensive into western Zhari near the city of Kandahar? This is the same region that the Canadians went into in 2006 and got thoroughly thrashed. Not even the U.S. commander on the ground thinks much is going to come of it. Lt. Col. Peter Benchoff of the 101st Airborne told the Los Angeles Times that, as far as western Zhari goes, "Security sucks. Development? Nothing substantial. Information campaign? Nobody believes us. Governance? We've had one hour long visit by a governmental official in the last two and a half months."
The 101st's base is regularly mortared, and three contractors were killed two weeks ago by Taliban shells. The town has no schools, no clinics and no government presence.
Indeed, the situation all over the country is going downhill for the U.S. and NATO. In spite of the surge - allied troops levels have risen from 30,000 in 2005 to 150,000 today - the country is less secure and more violent than it was in 2001.
The Afghan Study Group found that American combat deaths have sharply escalated, as have roadside bombs, suicide attacks, assassinations, and civilian casualties. According to the International Security Assistance Force, shellings, bombings and small arms attacks for August 2010 were up 49 percent over August of last year. And local Afghan media sources report that there are four to five assassinations every day in Kandahar City.
For the Sept. 19 election there were 350 fewer polling places - 14 percent of the total - than there were last year, because the government could not provide security.
More than that, Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service found that there has been a sharp drop in the number of roadside bombs being reported by local people. "The percentage of Taliban roadside bombs turned in had been averaging 3.5 percent from November 2009 through March 2010," says Porter, but after the U.S. stepped up its nighttime raids with Special Forces, "the percentage of turn-ins fell precipitously to 1.5 percent." In short, the "surge" has deeply angered the average Afghan.
Parts of the country that used to be safe, like the north and east, are increasingly insecure, and in places like the North, most of the insurgents are non-Pashtuns. Pashtuns make up the bulk of the Taliban and are mainly concentrated in the south. According to the United Nations, travel is no longer safe in 30 percent of the country, and insurgent attacks have more than doubled from a year ago - from 630 in August 2009, to 1,353 in August 2010.
The Americans attribute the rise in violence to the surge, but most of the attacks are occurring in places where the surge has no presence. "We do not support the perspective that this constitutes 'things getting worse before they get better'" Nic Lee, director of the Afghan NGO Safety Office, told the New York Times, "but see it consistent with the five-year trend of things getting worse."
Under pressure to show "progress" in the Afghan war, the U.S. military has fallen back on a device it used during the war in Southeast Asia: the body count. Gen. David Petraeus told National Public Radio that this summer, NATO forces has killed or captured 2,974 insurgents, 235 of them "commanders." But Porter found that the captures included "suspected" insurgents, which generally means anyone in the immediate vicinity of a raid. The Guardian concluded that as many as two-thirds of those detained in such raids are innocent.
Porter also questions the "commander" designation, since the Taliban is not organized into formal fighting units. "The vast majority of those 'leaders', it appears, were low level Taliban personnel who are easily replaced," he says. Given that the step up in raids over the past year has not resulted in a reduction of insurgent activity - indeed, quite the opposite - Porter's doubts seem valid.
Is the Kandahar operation, then, blind folly - Gen. David Petraeus is lobbying for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years to come - pre-negotiating positioning, or theater, because the enormous U.S. military budget is coming under increasing pressure? No one is going to suggest cutting military spending while the troops are locked in battle, a point that U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been arguing to Congress.
The danger is that the U.S. will step back from an opportunity to end the bloodletting in Afghanistan because Washington is worried that it will look like a defeat - it is - or because keeping the war going will armor the Pentagon from spending cuts. There was a moment like this in 2007, but the U.S. ignored a tentative Taliban peace proposal and the war got worse. If the Obama administration is not careful, it could happen again, and the U.S. will slip deeper into the Afghan quagmire.
This article originally appeared in Conn Hallinan's blog, "Dispatches from the Edge," on Sept. 18.