A Dangerous Strategy for Afghanistan

America’s senior uniformed military leader has called for increased political engagement with Afghan tribal leaders (read the Taliban enemy) which is consistent with America’s strategic goal of promoting democratic solutions. But negotiating a political role for the Taliban holds as much promise as the failed democratic experiments with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “Trends across the board [in Afghanistan] are not going in the right direction” and “I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year.” He bases that bleak assessment on the yet to be published National Intelligence Estimate which casts doubt that the Afghan government can stem the rise in Taliban influence.

That assessment which was leaked to the New York Times has evidently influenced the US to seek a new Afghan strategy which Mullen describes as a “move forward.” That strategy would engage the Taliban in talks which could lead to a political role for the group in the Afghan government while reducing combat operations and focusing more on training tribal militias as well as government forces.

The focus on training tribal militias is similar to what US forces tried with Iraq’s Sunni Awakening Councils. Although not directly applicable because Afghanistan’s jihadists are native Taliban rather than foreigners, the idea is to pull away enough support from the Taliban to divide the movement. Therefore, if enough enemy joins the political process there might be an opportunity to justify the West’s withdrawal.

This strategy has significant support. British commander in Afghanistan Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith believes that part of the Afghan solution must include talks with the Taliban who are willing to work with the Afghan government. That view is shared by Kai Eide, the top United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, as well as US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and perhaps the new combatant commander for the region, General David Pretraeus.

Not surprisingly, talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan officials have already taken place. Last month, Saudi King Abdullah hosted a meeting between 11 Taliban leaders and two Afghan government representatives in Mecca. There is scant information from those secret talks other than a report that the next meeting will be in two months and one of the preconditions for the talks was the Taliban’s promise to sever its ties with al Qaeda, terror leader Osama bin Ladin’s group.

The motivation for the talks appears to be overcoming war stagnation. The Afghan government and its allies believe the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily and the Taliban believes it can’t win a war against the US-led coalition. That’s why the Saudi initiative has gained support even though it is naïve to believe the Taliban are even remotely ready to become a democratic partner.

The notion that welcoming your enemy into government will turn him into a responsible democratic partner is an old liberal idea that has repeatedly failed. Two recent Mideast democratic experiments with Islamic terrorist organizations illustrate the futility of the strategy.

There were great hopes that once the Israelis pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 that the Palestinian people would elect a government that would bring peace. Unfortunately, the Palestinian terror group Hamas won at the ballot box over its “moderate” opponent, FATA. Now, “Hamas … is stronger than ever before,” said Avi Issacharov, a reporter with the Middle East newspaper Haaretz, and the Palestinian people are worse off.

Hamas used the democratic process to consolidate its control and to advance its radical Islamic agenda. Since taking charge Hamas has used tunnels from Gaza to Egypt to bring in weapons and commercial goods and to provide safe passage for militants to leave the territory for training in Iran and Syria. It has diverted limited fuel supplies away from legitimate commerce to its political allies, crushed dissent and harassed reporters. Today, most Gaza residents, 80 percent, are living on international handouts while violence against Israel escalates.

Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based “Party of God,” has taken a similar a track. It is an extension of Tehran’s Islamic Revolution which was formed in the early 1980s to challenge the secular Arabist movements and to provide Tehran a tool with which to challenge American interests in the Mideast. It has relied on violence as a tactic to advance its causes such as the 2006 war with Israel and has received funding from Tehran to buy much of Southern Lebanon in order to expand its influence.

Recently, Hezbollah used its “democratic” political influence to seize national power. In July, Lebanon’s first full-fledged government since 2006 was created with a veto proof Hezbollah minority. The group’s general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, claims, “We don’t want to have control over Lebanon” but he forced the new government to accept his terms by threatening military action. Now, Hezbollah is incrementally taking over Lebanon, chasing away dissenters and threatening Israeli and Mideast stability.

Hamas and Hezbollah used the democratic process to advance their radical Islamic views and to consolidate control over their countries. Let there be no doubt that the Taliban would do the same in Afghanistan.

Beyond the fact that terror groups make disastrous democratic partners, the Saudi-hosted talks are doomed because they don’t include the real Taliban power brokers.

The Long War Journal, an established publication that reports and provides analysis on the Global War on Terror, claims that there is no indication that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, that organization’s real power broker, has cut ties with al Qaeda as Saudi sources indicate. In fact, the Taliban “leaders” who joined the discussions in Mecca were not representing the Taliban’s Shura Majlis (executive council). They were “outsiders,” claims Omar.

Omar issued two press releases days after the Saudi conference distancing his group from the talks. Omar’s press release states, “The Shura Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers such baseless rumors as part of the failed efforts by our enemies to create distrust and doubts among Afghans….” “No official member of the Taliban – now or in the past – has ever negotiated with the US or its puppet Afghan government,” Omar said. Further, Omar emphasized that “Our struggle is to implement the rules of Allah in Afghanistan by eradicating the enemies.”

That doesn’t sound like a guy ready to sit down and talk peace or to join a democratic political process. What appears to be happening is the Saudis and their Western allies want peace at any cost and are willing to sit down with anyone claiming to represent the Taliban.

So what can be done?

Declaring victory and abandoning Afghanistan is a tempting “solution” if it were not for the likely fallout. Quitting Afghanistan now could result in a Tehran-dominated Mideast – a key Saudi concern, the possible disintegration of Pakistan into a radical nuclear armed Islamic state, and Afghanistan could fall back into Omar’s hands from which his ally al Qaeda would continue planning and executing operations against Western “infidels.”

Several things must be done to avoid these catastrophic outcomes. “We’ve got to impact … the poppy issue,” Mullen said because $100 million in annual drug profits fuel the Taliban’s insurgency. Pakistan and the western coalition must join forces to shutdown the Taliban’s cross-border operations. And Tehran’s support for the Taliban must be cut-off by military means if necessary.

Finally, we must tread very carefully when considering whether to welcome the Taliban into Afghanistan’s democratic process. The Taliban must first earn that opportunity by providing significant proof like total demilitization of its forces. Otherwise, the Taliban will doom Afghanistan to repeat the lessons learned from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.