My Life with the Taliban
For thirty years Afghanistan has cast a long, dark shadow over world events, but it has also been marked by pivotal moments that could have brought peace and changed world history.
One such moment occurred in February 1989, just as the last Soviet troops were leaving Afghanistan. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had flown into Islamabad—the first visit to Pakistan by a senior Soviet official. He came on a last-ditch mission to try to persuade Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the army, and the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) to agree to a temporary sharing of power between the Afghan Communist regime in Kabul and the Afghan Mujahideen. He hoped to prevent a civil war and lay the groundwork for a peaceful, final transfer of power to the Mujahideen.
By then the Soviets were in a state of panic. They ironically shared the CIA’s analysis that Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah would last only a few weeks after the Soviet troops had departed. The CIA got it wrong—Najibullah was to last three more years, until the eruption of civil war forced him to take refuge in the UN compound in April 1992. The ISI refused to oblige Shevardnadze. It wanted to get Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the seven disparate Mujahideen leaders and its principal protégé, into power in Kabul. The CIA had also urged the ISI to stand firm against the Soviets. It wanted to avenge the US humiliation in Vietnam and celebrate a total Communist debacle in Kabul—no matter how many Afghan lives it would cost. A political compromise was not in the plans of the ISI and the CIA.
I was summoned to meet Shevardnadze late at night and remember a frustrated but visibly angry man, outraged by the shortsightedness of Pakistan and the US and the clear desire of both governments to humiliate Moscow. He went on to evoke an apocalyptic vision of the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region. His predictions of the violence to come turned out to be dead right.
At that pivotal moment, if Shevardnadze’s compromise had been accepted, the world might well have avoided the decade-long Afghan civil war, the destruction of Kabul, the rise of the Taliban, and the sanctuary they provided al-Qaeda. Perhaps we could have avoided September 11 itself—and much that has followed since, including the latest attempt by a Nigerian extremist to blow up a transatlantic airliner, the killing of seven CIA officers at an Afghan base, and the continuing heavy casualties among NATO troops and Afghan civilians in Afghanistan.
With Obama’s controversial and risk-laden plan to first build up and then, in eighteen months, start drawing down US troops in Afghanistan, every nation and political leader in the region now faces another pivotal moment. At stake is whether the US and its allies are willing to talk to the Afghan Taliban, because there is no military victory in sight and no other way to end a war that has been going on for thirty years.
When that moment comes—as it must—will the US and NATO be ready to talk with the Taliban or will they be internally divided, as they are now? Will President Hamid Karzai have the credibility to take part in such talks and deliver on an agreement that might be reached? Will the ISI demand that their own Taliban protégés return to power? Will the Taliban hard-liners, now scenting victory, even agree to talks and, as a consequence, be prepared to dump al-Qaeda? Or will they sit out the next eighteen months waiting for the Americans to begin to leave?
The Afghan Taliban are now a country-wide movement. During the last year they expanded to the previously quiet west and north of Afghanistan. Their leadership has safe havens in Pakistan. Casualties on all sides have risen dramatically. According to the UN, in 2009 there were an average of 1,200 attacks a month by Taliban or other insurgent groups—a 65 percent increase from the previous year. Over the twelve-month period, 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed, an increase of 14 percent; of those, two thirds were killed by the Taliban, a 40 percent increase. In addition, US and NATO combat deaths rose 76 percent, from 295 in 2008 to 520 in 2009.
Adding to the challenges facing the Afghan government, over the years it has been difficult to recruit Pashtuns for the Afghan army and police from the southern Pashtun provinces that are largely controlled by the Taliban, although recently Pashtun recruitment has increased following a pay rise for security forces. Even so, the Taliban have infiltrated parts of the Afghan army and police—the key components of the US plan to start the handover of power to local forces by July 2011. In large parts of Afghanistan, development programs have come to a halt and nearly half of the UN staff assigned to Afghanistan have been relocated to Dubai and Central Asia because of security concerns.
According to Major General Michael Flynn, the NATO military chief of intelligence in Afghanistan, the Taliban now have shadow governors in thirty-three out of thirty-four provinces—they serve to organize the movement at a provincial level and disrupt government initiatives in their area—and the movement “can sustain itself indefinitely.” Flynn has described US intelligence in Afghanistan as “clueless” and “ignorant.”*
Taliban commanders have stepped up their vicious campaign to intimidate or kill any Afghan civilians working for the Karzai government, aid agencies, women’s groups, and even the UN. On January 18, militants launched a double suicide attack just yards from the presidential palace in central Kabul, provoking a gun battle in which three soldiers and two civilians were killed and more than seventy wounded. “We are now at a critical juncture…. The situation cannot continue as is if we are to succeed in Afghanistan,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council earlier in the month. “There is a risk that the deteriorating overall situation will become irreversible,” he added.
The prevailing view in Washington is that many Taliban fighters in the field can eventually be won over, but that the present US troop surge has to roll them back first, reversing Taliban successes and gaining control over the population centers and major roads. According to the current American strategy, the US military has to weaken the Taliban before negotiating with them. The commander of US and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has both a special fund of $1.5 billion to provide incentives and other forms of support to Taliban who put down their arms, and a group of British and American officers who are drawing up plans to win over Taliban commanders and fighters as the troop surge tilts the battlefield back in favor of the US. General McChrystal told me in Islamabad in early January that he is confident that many Taliban will be won over in the field. This US reconciliation effort would be led by Karzai, who for several years has called for talks with Taliban leaders.
There is another way of looking at the present crisis. Despite their successes, the Taliban are probably now near the height of their power. They do not control major population centers—nor can they, given NATO’s military strength and air power. There are no countrywide, populist insurrections against NATO forces as there were against the coalition forces in Iraq. The vast majority of Afghans do not want the return of a Taliban regime despite their anger at the Karzai government and the general international failure to deliver economic progress. Many Afghans believe that as long as Western troops remain, there is still the hope that security can return and their lives change for the better.
Thus the next few months could offer a critical opportunity to persuade the Taliban that this is the best time to negotiate a settlement, because they are at their strongest.
Both Generals McChrystal and David Petraeus, the head of the US military’s Central Command, have said that they cannot shoot their way to victory. Obama is clear about defeating al-Qaeda, but he is more inclined toward negotiations with the Taliban. In his West Point speech in December, Obama said he supported Kabul’s efforts to “open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.”
The present US military strategy aims to peel away Taliban commanders and fighters and resettle them without making any major political concessions or changes to the Afghan constitution. But Washington remains deeply divided about talking to the Taliban leaders. The State and Defense Departments, the White House, and the CIA all have different views about it, and there are also divisions between the US and its allies.
General McChrystal told me that many mid-level Taliban commanders and their men are waiting for Karzai to announce a reconciliation strategy before offering to change sides. “The reintegration of former Taliban into society offers a good chance to reduce the insurgency in Afghanistan…while al-Qaeda needs to be hunted and destroyed.” Whether the US and its allies should hold talks with the Taliban leadership, he said, is a political decision to be made by Washington. In December Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me that in his estimation some 70 percent of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money rather than because of ideological commitment to the movement, and they can be won over.
Meanwhile the Taliban have shown the first hint of flexibility, as suggested in a ten-page statement issued in November 2009 for the religious festival of Eid. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar, while urging his fighters to continue the jihad against “the arrogant [US] enemy,” also pledged that a future Taliban regime would bring peace and noninterference from outside forces, and would pose no threat to neighboring countries—implying that al-Qaeda would not be returning to Afghanistan along with the Taliban. Sounding more like a diplomat than an extremist, Omar said, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants to take constructive measures together with all countries for mutual cooperation, economic development and good future on the basis of mutual respect.”
A week later, the Taliban’s response to Obama’s West Point speech again suggested a changed attitude. There was not a single mention of jihad or imposing Islamic law. Instead the Taliban spoke of a nationalist and patriotic struggle for Afghanistan’s independence and said they were “ready to give legal guarantee if the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.” In a New Year’s message the Taliban, while condemning the US surge, even seemed to empathize with Obama, observing that the American president faces “a great many problems and opposition” at home.
The Taliban’s new tone can be traced to secret talks in the spring of 2009. Sponsored by Saudi Arabia at Karzai’s request, the talks included former (or now retired) Taliban, former Arab members of al-Qaeda, and Karzai’s representatives. No breakthrough took place, but the talks led to a series of visits to Saudi Arabia by important Taliban leaders during the rest of 2009. The US, British, and Saudi officials who were indirectly in contact with the Taliban there quickly encouraged them to renounce al-Qaeda and lay out their negotiating demands. In turn, the Taliban said that distancing themselves from al-Qaeda would require the other side to meet a principal demand of their own: that all foreign forces must announce a timetable to leave Afghanistan.