Monday, March 9, 2009

should we talk to the Taliban?

CNN has an interesting piece on it, in which the majority of those interviewed say no.

"You want to be working with the Afghans as partners as you reach out to individuals. You're not getting them as a group. If you do bring some of them in as a group, they'll cooperate with you just like they did in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, but the second you're gone, they're going to start abusing the population, violating human rights," he [former CIA officer Gary Berntsen] said.

I see two issues here:

1. Unlike in Iraq, the predominantly Pashtun Taliban are not facing ethnic annihalation like the Sunnis were in Iraq. Stuck between the pincer of ethnic cleansing and political domination from the American-backed Shiite government on the one hand, and from radical and hated AQI foreigners on the other, the Sunnis figured their best lot was to throw in with the Americans and get arms and training to police their own and ultimately defend themselves from the Shiites. (This is why many people say the long-term impacts of our "surge" Iraq strategy will be worse than if we'd just left, but that's another story.) Furthermore, a powerful Shiite central government with oil money can crush domestic opposition, as Saddam did for the Sunnis when he was in power. In Afghanistan, there basically is no central government, and the major source of revenue from Afghanistan is in the hands of the insurgents: opium. The Taliban has nothing to fear.

2. Our goals have to be realistic. We can't turn Afghanistan into a liberal democracy with a strong central government, it's just not going to happen. I'd love it if girls could continue to go to school there once we're gone, but the most important thing for America's goals in Afghanistan is to leave in place a political structure that gives no tribal faction an incentive to back, support, or give harbor to people like al Qaeda and bin Laden. Just because the country remains lawless, poor, and tribal doesn't mean it's a real threat to us. After all, until we meddled in Somalia via the Ethiopian invasion, it had been utterly stateless for 15 years and posed no threat to us whatseover apart from its piracy problem. We didn't remove the Taliban because of their human rights record, but because they supported a terrorist group that attacked us. The leadership of both the Taliban and al Qaeda was decimated by our initial assault. The key is -- to be perfectly realistic -- to make it clear to all sides how much they will suffer if they allow this sort of thing to happen again.

Accomplishing all our goals in Afghanistan would probably require a vicious campaign of indiscrimatory violence against pro-Taliban tribes to scare them into ending the insurgency, and the legalization of opium to wipe out their main source of income. Since neither of these are remotely morally acceptable, we'd better be prepared for a long slough. Probably the best way to do this is to reinforce our troops there to make it harder for the Taliban to succeed, then negotiating with them once we have greater leverage. Which seems to me precisely what Obama is doing.

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