Matthew Hoh Headshot

Perhaps a Good Step in Afghanistan

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Several media outlets, including the Guardian and McClatchy, reported this week that US Marines in one part of Sangin, one of the most violent districts in Helmand Province, have, through 25 days of negotiations, reached a deal with local Afghan leaders. It is, of course, too early to know whether this deal is even real and, if it is, whether it will last. It is possible this deal could even make things worse, particularly if those involved in the deal are enriched or empowered in greater proportion than the traditional norm in the area or if other local groups or powerbrokers were left out of the arrangement or disenfranchised. Such support or favoritism could push other factions to the Taliban or exacerbate existing tribal or local rivalries. Similar deals have been brokered in Helmand before, as well as other parts of Afghanistan, but have fallen through for multiple reasons, including a lack of commitment and dedication of resources by the Afghan government and NATO forces, and due to the trappings and pitfalls to Western military officers and diplomats of a foreign, complex and dynamic tribal, sub-tribal, familial, valley and village political system entangled in three decades of war.

At this time details are limited, so it is impossible to know the particulars or the underpinnings of the deal, but there are a few reasons to be optimistic.* First, this may signal a willingness by Western military leadership to allow subordinate commanders to negotiate directly and authoritatively with local, tribal and insurgent leadership. It will be interesting to see the extent that American and British civilian political officers were involved with the negotiations and who actually represented the Afghan central government and security forces. It will also be important, if this deal and other deals are to be sustained, to what extent agreements, if any, have been arranged with the Afghan central government to include the tribal and local leadership in the central government at local, district and provincial levels. Additionally, will we see an increased inclusion of local men in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) or acceptance of the ANSF by the local population? Presently, southern Pashtuns are incredibly under-represented in the security forces and the security forces, particularly the army, are viewed as outsiders in southern Afghanistan. Or will the local leadership be allowed to establish their own security forces, a la the Sons of Iraq? The Sons of Iraq movement, along with the Sunni Awakening, was successful in diminishing the insurgency and reducing violence in Iraq, not because they rose up to fight the insurgency, but because they were the insurgency. Further, if local deals like this are to be brokered throughout the country and are to be successful long term, similar negotiated settlements must occur at provincial, regional and national levels. This must include some form of reformation of the government and constitution to incorporate such power sharing agreements and to broaden the umbrella of the political process.

It is also encouraging that this deal may have been with leaders that were currently supporting the Taliban or are members of the Taliban. This is a divergence from previous limitations on negotiations encumbered with preconditions that basically called for the insurgents to surrender first or that broad brushed the insurgency as a monolithic, jihadist, trans-national terrorist cause, much as we did with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq from 2003-2006. Understanding the insurgency as being composed of multiple, local groups, many of which possess legitimate local political grievances or support the Taliban because they feel disenfranchised or preyed upon by local or national rivals, empowered and enriched by an occupying third power, is a first step in splitting the insurgency, weakening the Taliban's political and military momentum, and marginalizing and weakening non-reconcilable groups; a process we finally adopted with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 and one we should have adopted years ago in Afghanistan.

What this deal also accomplishes is it shows southern Pashtun leadership that there is another choice besides having to choose between the foreign backed Kabul government and the Taliban. For too long we have allowed the southern Pashtuns only two choices. Either submit and accept rule that generates from a corrupt and predatory regime in Kabul, propped up by Western occupiers and composed primarily of ethnic, tribal and regional rivals, or support the Taliban. If this deal allows for some semblance of autonomy and a controlling say in local affairs (presence of security forces, involvement with development projects, composition of district council and leadership, etc), albeit with both military and financial support, then local leaders in the South will be allowed a third choice, one that will weaken the overall strength of the Taliban, decrease violence and increase stability through the implementation of a legitimate and accepted local political order. Again, however, if this is to work and to hold long term, similar settlements must occur at other political levels and the current political and governance system must be amended to incorporate the results of the deal and to sustain those results.

If this deal is real, if it somehow avoids the hazards of constructing an agreement that has bedeviled previous attempts at negotiation, if it doesn't inflame existing rivalries (e.g., in an overly simple American reference, not strengthening the Hatfields over the McCoys), if it lasts and is sustainable, and if it signals a policy shift by the West towards direct negotiations and a more forceful political process as opposed to a hopelessly military dominated approach that basically attempts subjugation of a rural population, then this report is very good news and this deal is the right and smart way to start off the New Year.

*I still fail to see the intrinsic worth or necessity to US vital national interests in occupying southern Afghanistan and participating in another nation's civil war, particularly as our actions fail to have an effect on Al-Qaeda's operations and organization.