THE BLOG

Golden Surrender

COIN, the U.S.'s murky and often incoherent counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, seems an appropriate acronym, especially considering the wacky notion that the Taliban can be bought off with a fistful of coins. One element of the strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan is "reintegration," sometimes called "reconciliation," the idea that the Taliban can be persuaded to lay down their arms, rejoin their families, villages and tribes, and be a part of a new, peaceful Afghanistan. And the great persuader, at least in the minds of some American policymakers, is gold. Give the Taliban enough money (or access to it), the thinking goes, and they will sup at the table of plenty and forget all that silly stuff about jihad and the new emirate. The money is the carrot, the ongoing "kinetic" military operations are the stick, and in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that combination will persuade the rank-and-file Taliban, the foot soldiers, that "they don't want to be a part of the Taliban any more." But as Matt Waldman explains in his piece on the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN) titled "Golden Surrender " (I borrowed his title), it ain't that simple. In fact, the oversimplification of the Afghanistan problem by U.S. military planners has been a chronic condition of the West's occupation of the country, and an unfortunate hallmark of the can-do American attitude that there's a quick and easy fix for anything. As someone once noted, for every complex problem there's a simple solution, and it's wrong.

Waldman writes:

Reintegration is more complex and difficult to accomplish than is commonly appreciated. There are significant obstacles, including lack of trust, insurgent cohesion, and revenge attacks on participants. There is also a dissonance between the economic incentives offered by reintegration and some of the powerful social, political, ideological, and personal factors that cause people to fight.

Note well: powerful social, political, ideological and personal factors. For the Taliban it is not simply a case of "show me the money." The movement was founded on ideology, a starkly narrow, militant Islamism with a burning focus: expunge the infidels and establish a puritanical emirate to encompass Afghanistan and Pakistan. That torch will not be snuffed out by the offer of a job -- which in the future might be digging Afghanistan's recently-discovered mineral treasures out of the ground for the enrichment of multi-national mining companies.

The reintegration scheme of course is not simply a dole (I oversimplified) but encompasses, as Waldman writes, "...education and vocational training... 'protection and security'...and measures for amnesty, disarmament, deradicalisation, and monitoring." The cost of all that, even if one believes it would be possible, could top a billion dollars.

In a second article published on the AAN, scholar Thomas Ruttig notes that "...there is still an immense lack of understanding - and even of interest - with regard to the nature of the Taleban movement." While many Taliban (note that Ruttig, a German, spells "Taleban" with an e while I spell it with an i; there is no direct transliteration from the Pashtu) identify themselves as Pashtuns, the social and political structures of the Pashtun tribes have undergone significant change in the more than three decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Ruttig says. And the Taliban movement views itself as above tribalism or even nationalism -- by putting their Islamist credo above tribalism they have been able to win influence in non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the traditional loya jirga form of tribal decision-making has been supplanted by a less democratic, more authoritarian form, the shura, which allows the Taliban to exercise authority through local and regional strongmen without having to win the broad consensus that the loya jirga required.

Given the nature of the Taliban movement and the dramatic changes in Afghan society, plus the West's lack of understanding of either, a reintegration program seems doomed to fail no matter how golden the surrender offer might be. To create the infrastructure and provide the security such a program would require seems an impossible order, especially when you consider the elephant in the parlor: the occupation itself. The great conundrum is that without the West's military occupation the requirements for reintegration can't be provided, but it is that very occupation that gives the Taliban their strength and appeal. The muffled drumbeat of daily reports of NATO and U.S. soldiers dying in Afghanistan, of Afghan civilians and soldiers being killed by errant bombs and rockets, of villages or districts being won and then lost, will continue ad infinitum, day after day, month after month, and year after year. The Taliban live there. They are not going away. We should.