The background to this argument, which is a modified and expanded version of a New York Times op-ed that appears on Wednesday, is detailed in a new book, Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists (Ecco/HarperCollins).
On successive days last week the world’s major news outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, reported NATO-abetted talks with the Taliban elite and the routing of the Taliban from their main stronghold in Kandahar. All seemed to be going according to the U.S. plan: Allow for “preliminary” talks to end the war through a broad-based “reconciliation” process, but only after beefed-up coalition forces “gained the initiative” on the battlefield. But despite assertions by senior NATO officials that military pressure will start the Taliban thinking about alternatives to fighting, and statements by commanding General Petraeus and others that they can still beat the Taliban with enough money and men, in fact the surge appears only to have expanded Taliban activity and entrenched resolve to fight on until America tires and leaves.
The real pressure is on the U.S., not the Taliban, to show that there is “light at the end of the tunnel,” which is why talks with the Taliban are only now coming to light although they have been going on for years. Some senior Taliban leaders are playing along, not so much because they fear the Americans, but because they fear that their own mid-level commanders are getting out of control.
U.S. goals officially remain those stated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: To strengthen Afghan army forces and “reintegrate moderate Taliban,” that is, Taliban who consent to lay down arms and respect the Afghan constitution, including Western-inspired provisions to respect human rights and equality of women in the public sphere. Yet, in nine years of war, not a single significant group of Taliban has opted for reintegration (though a few individuals have come in, only to return to the Taliban when it is in their interest). Moreover, coalition military personnel will tell you that there isn’t a single Afghan army brigade that can hold its own against the Taliban.
Although we are ten months into the new U.S. push in Afghanistan, 2010 is the bloodiest year yet of fighting. Insurgent attacks are up 60 percent compared to last year (and up 40 percent yearly for the last several years), with an attack coming about every half hour. The estimated number of Taliban has increased some tenfold since they were routed by coalition forces in 2001, even as Western forces were doubling and redoubling their size. Now, Taliban now roam over large swaths of territory in the north and other areas beyond the traditional Pashtun southern provinces.
The U.S. claims to have killed thousands of Taliban in recent months, mostly foot soldiers and mid-level commanders. But the 25-year-old foot soldiers are being replaced by teenage fighters, and the 35-year-old mid-level commanders by 20-something students straight out madrassahs (madrassahs have little role in global jihad but madrassahs that cater to the rural poor in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for whom government provides no education, help sustain the Taliban movement). These new mid-level commanders and their fiercely loyal fighters are increasingly removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage (qawm), and especially of friendship born of common life experiences (andiwali), that bind together the Taliban leaders of the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and other insurgent groups. Indeed, it is primarily through andiwali — overlapping bonds of family, schooling, years together in camps, former comrades in war, business partners, neighbors — that talks between adversaries, including representatives of Mr. Karzai and Mullah Omar, have continued over the years.
These new Taliban warriors are increasingly independent, ruthless, and unwilling to compromise with foreign infidels and their associates. They yearn to fight, and describe battle as “going on vacation” from the long, boring interludes of training and waiting between engagements. They claim they will fight to death as long as any foreign soldiers remain, even if only in military bases. As with older Taliban, their ideology — a peculiar blend of pan-Islam sharia law and local pashtunwali custom — is “not for sale,” as former Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeff puts it. But now it is they, and not the senior leaders, who increasingly decide what these beliefs imply on the ground; recently in Paktia province, the Quetta Shura is reported as having sent a Muslem scholar (alim) to chastise a group of youthful commanders who were not following Quetta’s directives, and the commanders killed the cleric.
Hardly anyone who calls himself “Taliban” (an umbrella term for fractious Pashtun tribesmen who collectively hate the “foreign invader” enough to turn even traditional enemies into friends) considers U.S. conditions of reintegration anything but comical, much less negotiable. To get the tribesmen to lay down arms that have sustained them for ages against a host of powerful invaders, and for a flag that many do not even know represents the country, is about as far-fetched as getting the National Rifle Association to support a constitutional repeal of Americans’ right to bear arms. The separation of men and women in the public sphere is considered the very foundation of Pashtun tribal life and pashtunwali, along with the duty to protect guests and those who seek sanctuary.
There is, however, some hope that the Taliban can be persuaded to cut ties with Al Qaeda and offer some sort of guarantee that Afghan President Hamid Karzai won’t be left hanging from a lamppost when the Americans leave (as former Afghan President Najibullah was, after the Soviets left). Reminiscing on his June 2001 meeting with Mullah Omar, veteran correspondent Arnaud de Bourchgrave told me he was “stunned by the hostility that Mullah Omar expressed towards Bin Laden.” In fact, Mullah Omar had previously confiscated Bin Laden’s cellphone, put him under house arrest, and forbade him to issue fatwas. But then, as the Taliban were deliberating about how to “disinvite” their troublesome guest after 9/11, the U.S. began its assault on the Taliban and bombed them into togetherness with Al Qaeda.
According to one former top official in the Bush administration: “We knew that Karzai and Jalaluddin Haqqani (leader of an insurgent network with close ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda) were in direct contact, but it didn’t go anywhere because Haqqani refused to show goodwill and give up some Al Qaeda people.” Asked what the U.S. might have done had Haqqani thus betrayed his own tribal code of honor and turn on a guest who sought sanctuary, the Bush official replied, “we might have withdrawn a brigade as our show of goodwill.” Of course, such requests for goodwill were more dictates of a victor upon the vanquished; for a truly comparable act by the U.S. would have been to slit Karzai’s throat in exchange for, say, a ten percent reduction in attacks by Haqqani forces.
During the Soviet-Afghan War, Haqqani, who then-National Security Adviser Zibignew Brzezinski and Congressman Charlie Wilson identified as “goodness personified,” was a principal conduit of funds between Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence and the Afghan mujahideen, and remains a key link between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. Although Jalaluddin’s son, Serajuddin, and other Haqqani leaders now professes loyalty to Mullah Omar and probably continue to harbor members of Al Qaeda, these ties are more in keeping with the Afghan and Arab tribal dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my fiend” than out of love or common ideology. Moreover, the Haqqani have many longstanding andiwali ties with Mr. Karzai’s tribe, the Popalzai, which can provide avenues of sanctuary and security for both sides. Indeed, Mullah Baradar, a Taliban leader with close ties to the Haqqani, who is currently detained in Pakistan but whose possible involvement in the ongoing talks is being leaked to the press by ISI and others, is himself a member of the Popalzei who saved Mr. Karzai’s life when Mr. Karzai first reentered Afghanistan to forge his anti-Taliban alliance.
Current thinking among the U.S. military is to wait until a few months after President Obama’s declared June 2011 date for beginning to draw down troops in Afghanistan, to show the Taliban that there is still the force and will to beat them if they don’t come to the table. But this isn’t likely to impress any Taliban, who say that whether the U.S. leaves in 2011, or 2014 when the planned withdrawal should be complete, they will survive and thrive. But there is reason to consider turning the current shadow play about talks into serious negotiations now. Older Taliban leaders might well drop support for Bin Laden if we were no longer there to unite them, and instead were to keep the focus on hitting a greatly weakened Al Qaeda from afar. The Haqqanis and most of Afghan Taliban leaders are exclusively interested in their homeland, not global jihad, and will discard anyone who interferes in their lives. No Haqqani ever joined Al Qaeda before 9/11 because they couldn’t stand Arabs telling them how to pray and make jihad. And it is doubtful they would tolerate a meddling Al Qaeda that also continued to bring them trouble from outside. The problem now, for Taliban leaders as for us, is that the chief “success” of the recent surge — killing thousands of Taliban foot soldiers and mid-level commanders — may be reaping a whirlwind that no one will control.
Scott Atran, an American and French anthropologist, is author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.