Sunday, March 8, 2009

Obama ponders outreach to the Taliban

IHT, March 7, 2009
President Barack Obama declared in an interview that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. "There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region," he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.
Full article is here
Dreaming of splitting the Taliban
Helene Cooper, March 8, 2009
But there is a growing belief, particularly among experts who have been advising the Obama administration on Afpak policy, that it is important to peel away some lower members of the Taliban, in sort of a divide-and-conquer strategy. Petraeus, the head of the United States Central Command, said last year that one element of the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that might be applicable in Afghanistan was outreach to what he has described as "reconcilables" among the insurgents.

Under that principle, Mullah Omar is not considered, at least at this point by the West, as "reconcilable." But a local Taliban district commander might be.

Take Mullah Salam, a former Taliban commander who was persuaded by the British, with the aid of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to cross sides in 2007. He remains ostensibly loyal to NATO forces, and some British officials mention him as an example of how a campaign to woo Taliban district commanders might work.

But it remains an open question whether Mullah Salam's defection has helped or hurt the war effort. The British installed him as district governor in Musa Qala, in Helmand Province. Mullah Salam has since been the focus of complaints from the local populace; he is unpopular and corrupt, the locals complain, adding that he demands bribes and tributes from anyone who needs something.

"The key to winning back the population is to establish legitimate government," says Clare Lockhart, a former adviser to the Afghan government and the co-author of "Fixing Failed States" (Oxford University Press). "If you give people a government with sufficient credibility — and basic jobs — you can win back their trust."
But critical to winning back the population's trust, many experts counter, is the absence of war. And getting to the absence of war may require making the American public comfortable with the idea that the Taliban might not necessarily equal Al Qaeda.

"There are multiple motivations for why these insurgents could be fighting," Brigety asserts, suggesting that for some lower-level Taliban, the fight against NATO forces could emanate from something other than a desire to bring down the Afghan government or to defeat the United States.

One NATO official agreed in an interview, saying that some lower-level Taliban members attack coalition forces simply because, say, the foreigners didn't ask permission before entering their valley. Or because a Taliban commander paid each Taliban member the equivalent of $20 a day to do so.

"More importantly, though, is there are fissures that could be exploited," Brigety said, returning to the divide-and-conquer theme. "As long as we've adopted a position that all are our enemies, we could be missing an opportunity to exploit those divisions."
That is actually the rationale that Pakistan's government used to explain its recent and much-criticized reconciliation deal with local Taliban leaders in Pakistan's Swat region. Pakistani officials have sought to reassure the Obama administration that their deal, which allows Islamic law and Taliban figures to hold sway in Swat, was not a surrender to the Taliban, but an attempt to drive a wedge between hard-core Taliban leaders and local pro-Taliban Islamists who might be wooed back to the government's camp.

Reports from Swat indicate, however, that at least some parts of the once-popular tourist area are now being shunned by terrified former residents as accounts emerge of the torture and killing of an anti-Taliban figure who returned after the truce as well as the shooting of soldiers who didn't alert the Taliban to their movements.

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