Scott recently raised some skepticism about the potential impact of the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, former operational commander of the Afghan Taliban.
Today word is out that another high ranking Afghan Taliban was captured by the Pakistanis. This time it was Mullah Abdul Salam, Governor of the so-called Afghan Shadow Government in the Province of Kunduz.
Add to this Jane Perlez’s brilliant piece last week in the New York Times and I think Pakistan’s strategy in the region begins to come into focus.
Pakistan has told the United States it wants a central role in resolving the Afghan war and has offered to mediate with Taliban factions who use its territory and have long served as its allies, American and Pakistani officials said…What the Pakistanis can offer is their influence over the Taliban network of Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani, whose forces American commanders say are the most lethal battling American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
So after reading the (chai?) tea leaves on this one, here is my take:
The Pakistanis are making their move and want to make clear to the Americans (and NATO) that they are going to be the power broker in the post-occupation government of Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s military appears to be deploying its own version of a “reconcilables” vs. irreconcilables” COIN strategy with respect to the various anti-Western insurgent groups in Afghanistan and even their own tribal territories. The Pakistanis have (I think) decided which Afghan Taliban (the so-called Quetta Shura) are unable to be converted/dealt with and are turning them in. This puts pressure on the Taliban left in Afghanistan ito make the deals that the Pakistanis are now going to push for and that President Karzai has previously said he is willing to make—in essence amnesty, payoffs, and probably government/military posts.
Furthermore, the Pakistani Army has taken on the southern Waziristan strongholds of the so-called Pakistani Taliban (Tehri-i-Taliban), allowing the US to assassinate (via drone) various leaders within the movement–first Beitullah Mehsud and more recently, Hakimullah Mehsud.
The Pakistanis, however, have a long standing (since the anti-Soviet jihad) relationship with the Haqqani network and the Hizb i Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyr.
The Pakistanis seem to be playing good cop/bad cop with the Haqqanis, telling them that they (the Pakistanis) are the only thing holding back more drone attacks. If the Haqqanis and the Hekmatyr forces see the Afghan Taliban leadership as increasingly vulnerable, maybe this brings them to the negotiating table.
The Pakistanis did not participate in the Bonn Conference negotiations which brought to power the Karzai government, a deal that was largely struck with the Iranians and the Indians – in other words, Pakistan’s two biggest regional rivals. The Pakistanis now see a couple of things:
1. The occupation has failed and the new COIN strategy, however effective militarily, is too heavily dependent on the corrupt Karzai government to be long-lasting.
2. The Bonn Conference paradigm of Afghanistan (2001-2010) is also a failure: cf the rigged elections from last fall.
The Pakistanis now see their opening to force the US (and other regional actors) to accept a post-Bonn Afghanistan, which will not be a total return of power of the Taliban as in the 1990s but will include a number of anti-Western insurgent groups in the eventual governing structure.
It’s a shrewd if very dangerous game on the part of the Pakistani military–who in everything but name is now back to running the country, at least with respect to foreign policy.
To answer Scott’s skepticism, all of this again points to the fact that the US should just eliminate the middle man by ignoring the failed Afghan national government in favor of buying off local groups. Scott suggests the Taliban are practicing a form of 4th generation warfare, complete with their own version of “winning hearts and minds.” Still, the Taliban continue to rely a strategy of body count terrorism—roadside and suicide bombs, etc. I believe the Afghan Taliban are vulnerable to a joint US military “surge” plus a program of buying off and even deputizing various insurgents and/or tribal leaders (including whole swathes of former Taliban operatives), keeping up the pressure on Taliban leadership with assistance from the Pakistani military, and accepting the likelihood of amnesty for the Haqqanis and Hekmatyr in Afghanistan.
It won’t be a pretty situation but this would probably allow the US to keep a sufficient presence in the area to prevent al-Qaeda’s re-emergence. This strategy would also allow the US and NATO to exit (I would guess) within the next two to two-and-a-half years. A strategy of clear, hold, build, and hand over to the Afghan National Government, however, is a complete non-starter and would give plenty of time for the Afghan Taliban to re-group, hide out, and bide their time, while preventing any movement towards a deal with Haqqani and/or Hekmatyr and their forces.