Yesterday's reports by the New York Times and the Associated Press provide a few reasons for cautious optimism that US policy may be shifting towards a more sensible and productive direction in Afghanistan*. Despite previous disingenuous statements about the need for and support of a political settlement, reports that the US is no longer targeting for killing or capture insurgent leaders who are trying to negotiate prove that it is only now that the US has become serious in advancing the reconciliation process (nothing dampens the mood for negotiations more than a hellfire missile fired through a windshield as negotiators return from talks). Likewise, mistaken rhetoric about the need to drive the enemy to the negotiating table by force, because of their supposed unwillingness to compromise in spite of the toll 30 plus years of war has taken, may also now be being replaced by an acknowledgement of the possibilities of reconciliation. Additionally, the fact that General Petreaus' request this past summer that the Haqqani Network be placed on the US government's global terrorist group black list, thereby disallowing any possibilities for negotiations, has been disregarded, is a positive step that keeps open the chances for a settlement between the Afghan government and a major part of the Afghan insurgency.
Starting in September there were indications the Obama Administration might be amending its previous commitment to an overly security and development centric approach to the insurgency. Since President Obama took office 21 months ago, US policy in Afghanistan has reflected a mistaken premise that the insurgency is a monolithic organization capable of being defeated by a mixture of massive security and development efforts that would drive a wedge between the Afghan population and the insurgents. Unfortunately, the reality of the insurgency and the war in Afghanistan is much more complex as the insurgency is composed of multiple groups with many disparate and local political grievances. Often, those security and development efforts, enacted by foreign and occupying soldiers and civilians and meant to distance the population from the insurgency, inadvertently exacerbate existing local grievances and drive the population to the insurgency for support and protection.
This is very similar to US actions in Iraq, from 2003-2006, where our actions to protect the population from the Sunni insurgency failed to address aspects of the nature of the insurgent movement, the legitimate grievances of local communities and the political exclusion of the Sunni leadership at both local and national levels. In 2006, prior to General Petreaus' Surge and at a time when Marine Corps Intelligence proclaimed Anbar Province to be lost, the US adjusted its policy towards talks and reconciliation with the Sunni insurgency that resulted in the Anbar Awakening. The Anbar Awakening brought formerly excluded Sunni leadership into the governance process, distanced the Sunni population from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and delivered an extremely significant reduction in violence that, tenuously, still holds (please see Mark Perry's book, Talking to Terrorists, to understand how obstinacy and a commitment to rhetoric at senior levels in the US government delayed this process for two years, a delay that cost thousands of lives).
The Anbar Awakening, and the steps that Marine commanders took that led to it, was quite different than the efforts conducted by the US over the last several years in Afghanistan. The understanding that the insurgency is not monolithic and that it contains reconcilable elements is missing from the US' current Afghan strategy. It is true, like with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, that not all of the elements of the insurgency will be willing to talk or to be reconciled, but the key is to address the grievances of those elements of the insurgency that represent disaffected communities and that do not have legitimate or concrete ties to more ideological or extreme insurgent groups or leadership. This might mean bringing traditional local leaders into power, as we did with the Anbar sheiks, or ensuring that local communities are represented in the ranks of the Afghan security forces operating in their cities, valleys and villages, as was proved successful in Anbar Province.
There are many, many differences between Afghanistan and Iraq and, so, it is difficult, and dangerous, to draw direct parallels. However, in this case, understanding the complex nature of the insurgency and its objectives in Iraq helped lead to a strategy that led to stabilization. The same holds true for Afghanistan. Reports of the US being involved with efforts to reconcile elements of the insurgency with the Karzai government are reports that provide hope, albeit cautious hope, that a more sensible and rational US policy is taking hold.
*Talks leading to a settlement of the conflict are a primary focus of the Afghanistan Study Group's recommendations, read more here.