A few weeks ago, after a stealth drone crashed in Iran and its subsequent recovery and publicization by the Iranian government, I thought we appeared weak. The official response was a formal letter to the Iranian government requesting that they please, nay, “pretty please with a cherry on top” give it back or else we’ll be really upset. Iran replied with the expected “no, finders keepers” defense. So we moved from being weak to simply appearing impotent on the world stage. At least it can’t get any worse…right? Way to keep me on my toes Obama administration, now I know there is no lower limit to what you will do. The fact is, this incident is only the icing on the cake of Obama foreign policy ineptitude. The administration continues to pursue a muddled and naive approach to Afghanistan as well.
Afghanistan is a crazy place, which often seemed dysfunctional to me when I was there. Apparently that dysfunction has seeped into the current administration’s policy on how we engage the Taliban in that country.
Recently, news broke that a deal, in principle, for peace talks had been struck with the Taliban. The U.S. will release “high ranking Taliban officials” in exchange for the initiation of negotiations to take place in Qatar at a “Taliban political office.” Among the leaders to be released are Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister and governor of the northwestern province of Herat, and Noorullah Noori, also a former governor and a senior Taliban military commander. These are just two of the “high-risk detainee[s]” named in the apparent barter. Other reports indicate that a deal hasn’t been reached, but that the individuals have been mentioned in previous meetings between the U.S. and the Taliban over the past year.
Why is this ignorant and dysfunctional? After all, negotiations and diplomacy are a part of the conflict resolution process and could lead to the United States ability withdraw it’s men and women in uniform from the far-flung stretches of the globe.
This agreement shows that the Obama administration doesn’t understand who our enemies, in-country known as “Anti-Afghan Forces” (AAF), are. Mullah Muhammed Omar may be the former president of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and he may be the spiritual leader of the Taliban. He may be worth up to 10 million U.S. dollars on the U.S. State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program; but he is not the leader, in the typical sense, of the AAF, or for that matter the average fighter who attacks Afghan, U.S., and coalition forces on a daily basis in Kandahar, Kabul or Konar.
The average fighter in Afghanistan is not necessarily ideologically aligned with the Taliban or other groups, such as Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LET), Jaysh-e-Muhammed (JEM) or any other of the organizations that compose the alphabet soup of the Afghan insurgency. They may be affiliates or offshoots (as many of the groups were offshoots of a previous group), but not the typical “card carrying member” we wish we could envision here in the West. Rather, the typical fighter is a local villager who, like most other Afghans, doesn’t have a means of sustenance and can make money by carrying out an attack. Usually, they are paid a bounty through “hawallah” banks funded by wealthy sympathizers who don’t wish to dirty their own hands but still support the jihad. Fire a mortar, $15; shoot at a convoy, $25; plant an improvised explosive device, $50, fight for a month: $300. This is especially hard to quell when “pay day jihadist” can make more money a month than an enlisted soldier in the Afghan National Army. It’s all economic to a lot of the foot soldiers (a similar phenomenon was prevalent in Iraq, where children would be paid to throw a grenade at a US convoy).
Even if all the fighters were affiliated members of a particular group, peace negotiations would be inconsequential, as most of these organizations are “bottom-up,” as opposed to “top-down” in the manner of Western hierarchies. A peace struck with Mullah Omar, Hekmatyr Gulbuddin or any other insurgent leader in Kabul, Quetta or Qatar will not necessarily translate to a peace in the valleys of eastern Afghanistan or the barren planes of the South.
This is especially worrisome when it is considered that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is merely a line on the map that only Western governments appear to recognize. As long as there are safe havens in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (specifically Bajaur, Waziristan, and Khyber) and Nuristan, Nangahar, Konar and Laghman (N2KL) Provinces of Afghanistan, they will continue to be impediments to any brokered peace deal. Our policy vis-à-vis Pakistan has been to treat it with kid gloves at the best and turning a blind eye to its support and sustainment of the Afghan insurgency at worst. Our inability to mass enough force to adequately control N2KL (specifically Nuristan and Konar) for sustained periods of time has caused locals to learn the lesson the AAF has preached in that area: ‘The Americans will leave, but we will stay. Choose your side wisely.”
Consider the Pech River Valley and it’s corollaries (for which I have a special affinity having served there and for memories’ sake carried back some grenade metal in my knee and shoulder). Marines initially occupied it in 2005, the Army took over and expanded the sphere of influence into the Korengal and Waygul Valleys. After a series of attacks in 2007, U.S. forces pulled back from the Waygul Valley, the Korengal was left a few years later; AAF took control of previous U.S. Combat Outposts, delivering AAF a huge morale and propaganda victory. Months later all U.S. forces withdrew from the Pech Valley only to reoccupy it six months later with less troops. Needless to say, gains that were made over the years were lost in those six months.
If they do proceed, these peace negotiations will merely offer the Taliban leaders cover and reinforcements as high-level detainees are released back onto the battlefield. Winter is the typical period used by the AAF to rest, rearm, and refit. The harsh winters of the highlands deny them safe haven and adequate egress once they have conducted attacks on coalition forces; additionally, resupply lines, usually through mountain passes, to Pakistan are inaccessible. If the U.S. is engaged with the “leaders” it is not likely that the military will be allowed to conduct offensive actions, thus allowing time to better prepare and organize for the annual “spring offensive,” or “fighting season.”
Additionally, the fact that the U.S. recognizes the Taliban enough to negotiate with them legitimizes their standing. When else has the U.S. negotiated with a non-state actor, much less a non-state actor hostile to our interests? It appears that since Iran didn’t want to play ball President Obama is getting his wish to negotiate with someone without preconditions and doubling down by possibly releasing high valued prisoners.