Dancing With the Taliban

As the United States begins its peace-dance with the Taliban it is worth remembering that on the dance floor the Taliban always believe in leading. Witness the killing on Jan. 20 of four French soldiers and the wounding of 17 others by an Afghan National Army (ANA) trainee and likely Taliban sympathizer.

With the killing of its soldiers, France has stopped training Afghan forces and President Sarkozy has warned that he may remove all French troops from Afghanistan this year -- two years ahead of schedule. If French forces left Afghanistan it would be very hard for the other European NATO forces to remain, given that European support for the 11-year-old Afghan war is virtually non-existent.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The killing of the French troops represents something much more sinister. According to the Washington Post:

... A report commissioned by the U.S. military [emphasis added] said at least 58 Western military personnel were killed in 26 attacks by Afghan soldiers or police between May 2007 and May 2011, when the report was finished. Such fratricide is fast leading to a crisis of trust between the two forces, if it hasn't reached this point already... the attacks do not represent rare and isolated events as currently being proclaimed.

Britain's The Guardian newspaper adds:

The data suggests incidents such as the killing...of four French soldiers reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between 'allies' in modern military history)... Based on interviews with 613 Afghan security forces, the document paints an extremely bleak picture of mutual contempt and misunderstanding between the two sides.

The crossroad question now faced by the United States and its allies is this: If the Afghan security forces are already embedded with scores of Taliban sleeper suicide-killers and if Afghan and Western forces now face a crisis of trust, mutual contempt and misunderstanding, it will be impossible to provide military training to the Afghans. Without a battlefield ready Afghan National Army, Afghanistan will not be able to defend itself against the Taliban -- a stated precondition for the exit of American forces from Afghanistan. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. But it gets worse.

The next NATO meeting is to be held in Chicago this May, on the eve of the November American presidential elections. Heads of state and star-studded generals of 28 countries will provide a powerful backdrop to showcase the Alliance's cohesion under American leadership. A coup for President Obama's reelection campaign.

But, will France (with the third largest military contingent in Afghanistan) still be part of the Afghan war when NATO leaders meet in Chicago? President Sarkozy's opponent in the French residential elections (which by a cruel stroke of fate also takes place between April and May this year) is gaining ground with his pledge to remove all French troops by the end of 2012. In a tightening presidential contest, will President Sarkozy be forced to also pledge to bring French troops home this year to blunt his opponent's growing appeal?

If he does, and other European countries follow the French lead, instead of a star spangled celebration, the world will see a NATO in disarray at the Chicago meeting -- a public relations disaster in the making for President Obama's re-election campaign.

Ah! The joys of dancing with the Taliban.