With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan looming, concrete steps that would facilitate stabilization of the country are in high demand. Two possibilities that have gained some traction are power-sharing with the Taliban and a strategy that breaks off moderate elements of the group. Pressure to speed up disengagement from Afghanistan may lead U.S. policymakers to grasp at any available options, including pursuing these policies simultaneously. While both have some chance of proving effective, they would be counter-productive if implemented together, something policymakers must keep in mind as they move forward with their plans.
Successful counterinsurgency requires a great amount of time and resources. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan is running short on both. As a result, policymakers may aspire to something less than complete victory; that is, a classic counterinsurgency, which eliminates insurgents, develops infrastructure, and eventually stabilizes the country, might not be viable, and the U.S. could settle for second-best.
One second-best strategy is power-sharing with insurgents, which has arisen several times in debates over Afghanistan. Such a policy is seen as increasingly attractive to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has grown concerned about the stability of his rule. This approach makes sense in theory: it increases the benefits militants receive from working with the government even if the outcome is not completely in line with the government's wishes.
Power-sharing approaches are occasionally effective. There have been attempts to end ethnic strife by setting up a central government that is split among the combatants. And participation in an open political process may have a moderating effect, turning formerly radical militants into responsible actors. This partly constituted the U.S. strategy in Iraq, which involved reaching out to Sunni militants to bring them into the political process and give them a stake in the country's stability.
The other strategy is disaggregating the militants. This would involve breaking off elements of the Taliban that are not devoted to the group's radical Islamist ideology. Disaggregation is premised on the belief that insurgent groups are not monolithic, with moderates present in even the most violent insurgency. There are always true-believers dedicated to the group's mission and strongly influenced by its ideology, whether Islamist or Marxist. Many other insurgents, though, join for less principled reasons. Some see the insurgency as a chance to make money, or redress personal grievances. Others join for reasons that have nothing to do with the fighting, such as social pressure.
Terrorism experts like Marc Sageman argue that a similar dynamic exists in al Qaeda, with numerous members drawn to the group through social networks. And a strategy based on disaggregation proved effective in Iraq. Most Sunni militants were fighting for reasons unrelated to al Qaeda's global agenda, and were distressed with the brutality of the local al Qaeda franchise, al Qaeda in Iraq. The United States capitalized on this situation, reaching out to Iraqi Sunnis and encouraging them to fight against al Qaeda in Iraq. Disaggregation strategies thus arguably reduce a group's numbers and tip the balance of power towards moderates, undermining militants' strength.
These two approaches seem complementary. One could expect a strategy based on their combination to sap a group of its members, increase moderates' power, and decrease incentives to keep fighting. In reality, however, they would undermine each other and the broader mission.
The disconnect between the strategies can be understood by thinking in terms of costs and benefits. With the power-sharing strategy, the government increases the benefits of ceasing hostilities, which often involves some autonomy for insurgents. Yet, this also requires the government to avoid direct confrontation, leaving the insurgents' goals and structure intact. The disaggregation approach, in turn, increases the benefits for moderate insurgents who cease their struggle. This could occur by paying off insurgents or by putting pressure on true-believers and discouraging less committed members.
The problem should now be apparent. Power-sharing would benefit insurgents who stop fighting, which would translate into benefits for true believers who could claim victory. This would vindicate their approach to the conflict and weaken the hands of moderates, making any attempt to break them off from the group impossible. In the case of Afghanistan, it would grant the Taliban control of certain areas, keeping the true believers in power while undercutting moderates. This would give hard-liners in the Taliban an even stronger position than before, as they would no longer face opposition from the U.S. forces or intra-group competition.
As Obama weighs his options for what is intended to be the final stage of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the dissonance between these two approaches should be remembered. Despite U.S. assurances it would not negotiate with the worst of the militants, it would be all too easy to speed up U.S. withdrawal by buying off some militants and giving others a part in the political process. At best this approach would bring temporary stability; at worst, it would strengthen the most radical Taliban factions and prolong the misery of the Afghan people. Instead, disaggregation should be pursued without any power-sharing with the Taliban. This strategy has worked in the past, and would likely be effective in cutting the Taliban off from its potential support base. It will be neither easy nor perfect, but with a conflict like Afghanistan, it may be our best bet.
This piece was previously posted at The Moderate Voice
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