Obama’s new plan for Afghanistan

Can the Taliban become allies in the campaign against al Qaeda?

The Globe and Mail began its main story on President Barack Obama’s new approach to Afghanistan[i] by reporting that the President is “vowing to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat’ the Taliban and al Qaeda.” In fact, the President pointedly did not promise to “defeat” the Taliban – and therein lies a key feature of the American policy shift.

President Obama[ii] did promise an increase in American forces to “take the fight to the Taliban in the south and east,” but the objective is not defined as “defeating” the Taliban; rather, the objective as defined by the White Paper of the President’s Interagency Policy Group (IPG)[iii] is to “secure Afghanistan’s south and east against the return of al Qaeda.”

The President’s speech included seven references to the Taliban, compared with 24 to al Qaeda. He certainly emphasized the need to ensure that the Afghan Government does not “fall to the Taliban,” because it would mean a return to “brutal governance” and, notably, that such a return would be accompanied by al Qaeda and would thus “allow al Qaeda to go unchallenged.” But preventing a Taliban controlled government in Kabul is not the same as defeating the Taliban.

The fight against the Taliban is consistently put in the context of denying al Qaeda and other extremists a haven in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But the promise of “defeat” is reserved for al Qaeda – along with pledges to “root out” and “target” it, and calling it “a cancer” in the region.

The message on the Taliban was significantly more nuanced – prevent its ascendance to national rule but at the same time open up new avenues to reconciliation with those elements outside of what he described as the core or extreme leadership that is linked to or sympathetic to al Qaeda.

Indeed, the Obama administration is essentially getting around to seeing mainstream Afghan and Pakistani Talibs as essential allies in the effort to defeat al Qaeda. The key to this shift are the Pashtun fighters that eschew the al Qaeda rhetoric and ideology and are instead driven by economic and social grievances against the Karzai Government, in the case of the Afghans, and are committed to resisting the foreign forces that they see as keeping their community from exercising its rightful role at the national level.

The Interagency Policy Group’s White Paper puts it this way: “While Mullah Omar and the Taliban's hard core that have aligned themselves with al Qaeda are not reconcilable and we cannot make a deal that includes them, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without convincing non-ideologically committed insurgents to lay down their arms, reject al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution.”

Acceptance of the existing constitution is the current mantra on reconciliation, but sooner or later it is likely that there will have to be some acknowledgement that Pashtun grievances are linked to their sense that the current constitution is not the product of a fully inclusive process – meaning that full acceptance of the current constitution is unlikely to survive as a condition for talks and reconciliatrion.

In the meantime, the IPG White Paper calls for the creation of provincial offices to develop reconciliation efforts in support of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, “targeting mid-to-low level insurgents…[and] explor[ing] ways to rehabilitate captured insurgents drawing on lessons learned from similar programs in Iraq and other countries.”

What that describes, of course, is a basic amnesty program. Amnesty has been and is being tried, but not with great success. So when President Hamid Karzai welcomed Obama’s new approach, he also called for the UN to review its terrorist list and remove Taliban leaders not overtly linked to al Qaeda. It is a move that signals his recognition that the amnesty strategy is inadequate and that the Taliban leadership must also be brought into a peace process. Aljazeera quotes him as saying that such a move “would help create ‘the right environment’ for a peace process.” [iv]

The implication is that the war against the Taliban, which is in reality, or is at least perceived as, a war against the Pashtun community,[v] must give way, not only to amnesty offers to individual fighters, but to negotiations with key Pashtun and Taliban leadership that could be amenable to exploring new power-sharing arrangements within the context of constitutional governance and which would give the Pashtun community an appropriate stake (not control) in the central government.

The IPG emphasizes that even the more limited reconciliation process it advocates “must not become a mechanism for instituting medieval social policies that give up the quest for gender equality and human rights” – in other words, reconciliation (whether as amnesty or in a more comprehensive peace process) cannot mean acquiescence to the governance style and human rights violations of the Taliban of the 1990s.

Preventing a return to Taliban rule is not incompatible with exploring ways of bringing the Pashtun community and Afghan Taliban into the Afghan mainstream. That is an objective not specifically included in the plan President Obama outlined on Friday, but the President’s new approach could end up being a significant step in that direction.

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[i] Paul Koring and Campbell Clark, “Obama unveils more robust Afghan strategy,” Globe and Mail, 28 March 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090327.wafghan27/BNStory/International.
[ii] President Obama’s Remarks on New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 27 March 2009. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/us/politics/27obama-text.html.
[iii] White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy towrd Afghanistan and Pakistan, 27 March 2009. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/us/politics/27text-whitepaper.html?ref=politics.
[iv] “Karzai welcomes new US strategy,” Aljazeera.Net, 28 March 2009. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2009/03/200932810106388317.html.
[v] Gwynne Dyer, “Obama needs to end America's anti-Pashtun war,” 17 March 2009, Straight.Com. http://www.straight.com/print/206467#.

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