Although David Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, recently peddled the notion that senior Taliban chieftains had made contact with senior Afghan government officials about the possibility of starting reconciliation talks, such talk of peace in our time is likely to be hype.
By publicizing such contacts, Petraeus is cleverly implying, but not saying, that the Taliban are running scared, because the long-delayed U.S. assault on Kandahar, the original hometown of the Taliban, and surrounding areas is putting pressure on the Islamists. Petraeus also opined that negotiation with insurgents is how these dirty little guerrilla wars usually end, citing the United Kingdom’s experience in Northern Ireland and his own “success” in Iraq. At least Petraeus should be given credit for his realization that the political aspects of guerrilla war are much more important than the military ones – rare in a U.S. military culture that routinely pursues military victory and unconditional surrender for their own sakes. Petraeus astutely realizes that he cannot win the Afghan conflict militarily, especially in the limited time he has available before the war-exhausted American public shuts the conflict down from home.
As in Vietnam, the latest offensive is designed to tip the balance on the battlefield to get a better settlement from the Taliban during any peace talks. The parallel with Vietnam does not end there. Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon unleashed the fury of years of air strikes against North Vietnam – more tons of bombs were dropped in the Vietnam War than during all of the much larger World War II – inducing the North Vietnamese into protracted peace talks. Yet the North Vietnamese only pretended to negotiate, buying time to build up their conventional forces for a major offensive in a post-U.S. Vietnam. U.S. ground forces were already being reduced, and the North Vietnamese knew that U.S. domestic support for the war was spent. Eventually, the North Vietnamese signed a peace deal that they never intended to keep, launching a final invasion of South Vietnam in 1975, two years after the United States had withdrawn its troops.
The North Vietnamese were not negotiating from a position of weakness, as Presidents LBJ and Nixon believed. Although the faraway war was limited for the United States, it was total for the Vietnamese because, in their minds, they were liberating their nation from yet another imperialist power (after having gotten rid of the Japanese and the French). The North Vietnamese practiced the art of negotiating – or pretending to negotiate – while fighting, realizing that in any guerrilla conflict the insurgents are not losing, they will likely win the long war when the foreign power gets exhausted and goes home.
Like the North Vietnamese, the Taliban are fierce fighters, remember how the British imperialists lost three wars in Afghanistan and the Soviets one, and have all the time in the world to just hang on and win by being the last people willing to fight. As in Vietnam, the United States has already signaled that it is headed for the exits beginning next year. But even if President Barack Obama had not done that to satisfy his antiwar Democratic base, the Taliban can read the public opinion polls in the United States about the war as well as the North Vietnamese could. Thus, the Taliban have incentives to negotiate while continuing to fight, stalling while they build strength and even more pressure builds in the United States to bring the boys and girls home. And, of course, taking the example of Vietnam, the Taliban know that once the U.S. leaves, it will probably not come back to rescue its client regime – thus making a bogus peace deal also attractive to the Taliban.
And despite the U.S. offensive around Kandahar, the Taliban have been making gains. The United States still does not have enough troops on the ground to successfully implement an “oil spot” counterinsurgency strategy that “clears, holds, and builds” an ever-expanding area of control. In El Salvador in the 1980s, the United States encouraged the El Salvadorian government to undertake such a strategy with a similar deficiency of troops. The communist FMLN guerrillas simply moved to where the government forces weren’t. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have been attacking in the north and west – areas outside the Pashtun south and east, which is the traditional tribal heartland of the Taliban movement.
Finally, one of the least appreciated facts about the Taliban insurgency is its tribal basis. Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, most of the high-ranking officials of his government have been Uzbek and Tajik, rival ethnic groups to the Pashtun. Many Pashtuns believe their only societal voice is through the Taliban. Yet in an ominous development, the Taliban now seem to be getting support for their attacks in the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated areas in the north and west. If the Taliban become a movement for national liberation from the foreign invader, the already low chances of U.S. “victory” will plummet even further. Historically, the strongest advantage guerrilla movements can garner is by establishing themselves as fighters for national liberation.
Thus, make no mistake, Petraeus’s implication that the Taliban are on the ropes should be taken for what it is – either unrealistic fantasy or deliberate deception.