Peace Talks Between Afghan Puppet Government and Taliban Irk UK, U.S.
By Gareth Porter
The beginning of political talks between
the Afghan government and the Taliban revealed by press accounts this week is
likely to deepen the rift that has just erupted in public between the United States and its British ally over the US commitment to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
According to a French diplomatic cable
that leaked to a French magazine last week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's
government is looking for an exit strategy from Afghanistan rather than an
endless war, and it sees a US escalation of the war as an alternative to a
political settlement rather than as supporting such an outcome.
The first meetings between the two sides
were held in Saudi Arabia in
the presence of Saudi King Abdullah Sep. 24 to 27, as reported by CNN's Nic
Robertson from London
Tuesday. Eleven Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials and a
representative of independent former mujahideen commander Gulfadin Hekmatyar
participated in the meetings, according to Robertson.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith of the
British command in Afghanistan
enthusiastically welcomed such talks. He was quoted by The Sunday Times
of London as
saying, "We want to change the nature of the debate from one where
disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done
If the Taliban were prepared to talk
about a political settlement, said Carleton-Smith, "that's precisely the
sort of the progress that concludes insurgencies like this."
The George W. Bush administration,
however, was evidently taken by surprise by news of the Afghan peace talks and
was decidedly cool toward it. One US
official told The Washington Times that it was unclear that the meetings
in Saudi Arabia
presage government peace talks with the Taliban. The implication was that the
administration would not welcome such talks.
defense official in Afghanistan
told the paper the Bush administration was "surprised" that it had
not been informed about the meeting in advance by the Afghan government.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his
way to discuss Afghanistan
with NATO defense ministers in Budapest,
made it clear that the Bush administration supports talks only for the purposes
of attracting individual leaders to leave the Taliban and join the government.
"What is important is detaching those who are reconcilable and who are
willing to be part of the future of the country from those who are
irreconcilable," he said.
Gates said he drew line at talks with the
head of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
However, representatives of the Taliban
leader are apparently involved in the talks, and President Hamid Karzai is
committed to going well beyond the tactic of appealing to individual Taliban
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim
Wardak said in a news conference Oct. 4 that resolution of the conflict
required a "political settlement with the Taliban". He added that
such a settlement would come only "after Taliban's acceptance of the
Afghan constitution and the peaceful rotation of power by democratic
The Afghan talks come against the
backdrop of a Bush administration decision to send 8,000 more US troops to Afghanistan
next year, and the expressed desire of the US commander, Gen. David. D.
McKiernan, for yet another 15,000 combat and support troops. Both Democratic
candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain have said they
would increase US troop
strength in Afghanistan.
Obama has said he would send troops now
scheduled to remain in Iraq
until next summer to Afghanistan
as an urgent priority, whereas McCain has not said when or how he would
increase the troop level.
Such a US troop increase is exactly what
the British fear, however. The British ambassador in Afghanistan,
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, was quoted in a diplomatic cable leaked to the French
investigative magazine "Le Canard enchaine" last week as telling the
French deputy ambassador that the US
presidential candidates "must be dissuaded from getting further bogged
down in Afghanistan".
In the French diplomatic report of the
Sep. 2 conversation, Cowper-Coles is reported as saying that an increase in
foreign troop strength in Afghanistan
would only exacerbate the overall political problem in Afghanistan.
The report has the ambassador saying that
such an increase "would identify us even more strongly as an occupation
force and would multiply the targets" for the insurgents.
Cowper-Coles is quoted as saying foreign
forces are the "lifeline" of the Afghan regime and that additional
forces would "slow down and complicate a possible emergence from the
In an obvious reference to the intention
to rely on higher levels of military force, Cowper-Coles said US strategy in Afghanistan "is destined to
Cowper-Coles is reported to have put much
of the blame for the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan on
the Karzai government. "The security situation is getting worse," the
report quoted him as saying. "So is corruption, and the government had
lost all trust."
The report makes it clear that the
British want to withdraw all their troops from Afghanistan within five to 10
years. Cowper-Coles is said to have suggested that the only way to do so is
through the emergence of what he called an "acceptable dictator".
The British foreign office has denied
that the report reflected the policy of the government itself. Nevertheless,
statements by Brigadier Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, last week, underlined the gulf
between US and British views on Afghanistan.
"We're not going to win this
war," said Carleton-Smith, according to The Sunday Times of London Sep. 28.
Carleton-Smith, commander of an air assault brigade who completed two tours in Afghanistan, suggested that foreign troops would
and should leave Afghanistan
without having defeated the insurgency. "We may leave with there still
being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency," he said.
Like Cowper-Coles, Carleton-Smith
suggested that the real problem for the coalition was not military but
political. "This struggle is more down to the credibility of the Afghan
Government," he said, "than the threat from the Taliban."
When Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as
British prime minister in June 2007, British officials concluded that the
Taliban was too deep-rooted to be defeated militarily, according to a report in
The Guardian last October. The Brown government decided to pursue a strategy of
courting "moderate" Taliban leaders and fighters who were believed to
be motivated more by tribal obligation than jihadi ideology.
That idea was in line with US strategy as
well. Now, however, both Karzai and the British have moved beyond that to a
policy of negotiating directly and officially with the Taliban. For the British
it appears to be part of an exit strategy that is not shared by Washington.
Defense Secretary Gates responded to
Carleton-Smith's remarks Tuesday by reiterating the official US view that
additional forces are needed in Afghanistan and implying that the British's
officer's views are "defeatist". Gates said, "[T]here certainly
is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunity to be
successful in the long run."
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October 13, 2008)