Two major policy announcements from the White House in the last several weeks -- one committing to a draw down of troops in Iraq by 2011 and one committing 17,000 of our bravest to Afghanistan -- coalesce as pivotal decisions in redirecting US Foreign Policy in the Afghani and Pakistani (AfPak) regions. But as the last surge in armed forces on the ground taught us: troop increases are a tactic, but hardly a complete strategy.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, however, President Barack Obama mentioned he was amenable to a new tactic in his still materializing AfPak approach: talking to the Taliban. Drawing on examples from Iraq, both US Central Command chief General David Petraeus and Obama have largely attributed the success in fighting the brutal insurgency to the peeling off and working with Sunni militia members that grew increasingly alienated.
Carrying over that rationale to Afghanistan, Vice President Biden backed up his boss's stance at a NATO conference by claiming that at least 70% of Taliban guerrillas could be flipped to fight their brothers-in-arms.
But if HBO's The Wire or the prisoner's dilemma has taught us a thing, it's that defections are not so easy. While normally the US should exhaust all diplomatic channels, President Obama should exercise great caution or even restraint for this one, as it comes along with one too many concerns.
(1) Talking to the Taliban will demand a keen understanding of the nuances of different tribes and what sort of governing structures (if any) they operate under. Additionally, a connection to their local language and culture would need to be established, including identifying what the underlying motivations would be for their defection. Given the already turbulent relations between the Taliban and American forces or envoys in the region, it may be near impossible to walk this delicate, diplomatic tightrope. Even if attempted the strategy effectively calls for western players on the ground in the area to be psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists to comprehend every shade of difference between X Taliban tribe and Y Taliban tribe down to dietary restrictions, dialect, differences in garb and the history/traditions of the group -- all in attempt to identify only possible defectors.
(2) Simply attempting this (without any guarantee of successful defections, but a guarantee of US resources) will take an extensive period of time. At a March 10th White House Press Briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs said that they are "on track to talking to the Taliban," but that he did not have a date by which a complete review of AfPak was expected to be completed. But, time is a luxury President Obama does not have. If as though dissecting a group to identify defectors in scattered tribes wasn't lofty a goal enough, missile strikes and western military operations continue to bombard the northern border. The resulting widespread (collateral) damage has displaced and instilled fear in several locals. Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the NWFP notes that, "if the government doesn't build and attract tribesman back quickly, and do things to put money in their pockets, there is every likelihood of a reversion to [militancy]."
(3) Qualms of being able to trust those that we flip begs the question of whether defections are possible or if these are the type of defectors we even want running plays for Team America in the region. What's more is that once trained, armed and equipped with knowledge of US strategies in the area, there is no guarantee that they may not flip back against us, or use those assets against us at a later point. After all if they've defected and betrayed their supposed loyalties once, who's to say they will not do it again? What's worse is that there is a documented Afghani propensity to fight, almost in excess. A recent Economist piece highlighted the reality that, "American soldiers who have worked with both Iraqi and Afghan troops say they struggle to push Iraqis into battle, and struggle to pull Afghans back so that aircraft can drop their bombs."
(4) Additional concerns lay in how much command of the situation America will have, at the outset. Until locals are flipped and trained in tactics suited to their circumstances, Afghan/Pakistani officials and locals (given their more intimate knowledge of these matters) will need to be enlisted to earn Taliban trust, calming their skepticism of the West into a willingness to seek a truce. Therein lays yet another problem with this approach, as it results in a bit of "midwife" diplomacy. While the Americans attempt to engage a group of militant defectors diplomatically, they are initially left at the sidelines. Without us at the helm, there is no guarantee that the Administration will be able to drive a large enough wedge between militants in a way that is consistent with US goals in the region.
(5) Even looking to existing models of this approach rings alarms of concern. When the Pakistani government recently reached a truce agreement with locals in the Swat valley (an administrative district in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)) they assured the Obama administration that yielding power to Taliban leaders was not a waving of a white flag. Instead President Asif ali Zardari noted that it would help identify and flip less extreme members with hopes of their defection helping to eventually stabilize the region.
Yet, so far, the model is anything but stable. The New York Time's Helene Cooper recently cited reports from Swat that soldiers had been shot and an anti-Taleban figure was tortured and murdered; all of this coming after settling the truce.
She also adds that when this attempt has been tried before with individual militia members such as Mullah Salam -- a former Taliban commander -- success has been slim. Salam was coaxed into switching sides and was eventually installed as a district governor in the Helmand Province. Since then though, accounts have indicated that he is riddled with corruptions and that he demands bribes from locals for almost all sorts of deals that are made in Helmand.
From the improbable task of psychologically negotiating the loyalty of Taliban members, to doubts in how up-front a role America can play, to examples of how model have already seen drawbacks, the divide and conquer approach is currently turbulent at best.
But if the Obama administration does indeed to attempt it, there are some critical points of oversight he must keep in mind. First, he must work with the Pakistani government to monitor any developments in Swat Valley. It's off to a rocky start, but it will shed the most light on how effective identifying less-hardcore Taliban actually was, providing lessons from the realities of the truce agreement. Second, he will need to act fast. Troop deployments aside, getting personnel on the ground to start conversations with Taliban leaders, gain their trust and defect is an arduous task and if Obama takes it up, the sociological elements to it all demand he start now. Finally, Obama must ensure that all relevant federal agencies involved act under one streamlined strategy. When a February 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report called for the development of a comprehensive plan, the Department of Defense and USAID agreed. Yet the State Department claimed an exhaustive plan already existed while the National Security Council provided no comment. Disagreement among these pivotal agencies in whether a plan even simply exists is troubling enough, but since discussions with the Taliban requires all teams on the ground to monitor diplomatic progress or strife, they will need to communicate all observations to one another so they may act accordingly. As Obama's eyes and ears in the situation, he must mandate a clear and thorough division of labor, so each agency knows it role; and he must insist upon streamlined interagency communications so everyone is on the same page.
The situation is dire and time is running out, but if Obama must insist on this approach, implementing these recommendations needs to be the priority for the Administration, as ceding power or voice to the Taliban, as of now, seems to be a shot in the dark.
Thanks to Smita Satiani, Brooke Lehman, Josh Leo Lawson, Dr. Arun Ananth and Thomas Brugato for contributing insights to this article.