The beginning of political talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban revealed by press accounts this week is likely to deepen the rift that has just erupted in public between the United States and its British ally over the US commitment to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
According to a French diplomatic cable that leaked to a French magazine last week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government is looking for an exit strategy from Afghanistan rather than an endless war, and it sees a US escalation of the war as an alternative to a political settlement rather than as supporting such an outcome.
The first meetings between the two sides were held in Saudi Arabia in the presence of Saudi King Abdullah Sep. 24 to 27, as reported by CNN’s Nic Robertson from London Tuesday. Eleven Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials and a representative of independent former mujahideen commander Gulfadin Hekmatyar participated in the meetings, according to Robertson.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith of the British command in Afghanistan enthusiastically welcomed such talks. He was quoted by The Sunday Times of London as saying, "We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations."
If the Taliban were prepared to talk about a political settlement, said Carleton-Smith, "that’s precisely the sort of the progress that concludes insurgencies like this."
The George W. Bush administration, however, was evidently taken by surprise by news of the Afghan peace talks and was decidedly cool toward it. One US official told The Washington Times that it was unclear that the meetings in Saudi Arabia presage government peace talks with the Taliban. The implication was that the administration would not welcome such talks.
A US defense official in Afghanistan told the paper the Bush administration was "surprised" that it had not been informed about the meeting in advance by the Afghan government.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his way to discuss Afghanistan with NATO defense ministers in Budapest, made it clear that the Bush administration supports talks only for the purposes of attracting individual leaders to leave the Taliban and join the government. "What is important is detaching those who are reconcilable and who are willing to be part of the future of the country from those who are irreconcilable," he said.
Gates said he drew line at talks with the head of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
However, representatives of the Taliban leader are apparently involved in the talks, and President Hamid Karzai is committed to going well beyond the tactic of appealing to individual Taliban figures.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in a news conference Oct. 4 that resolution of the conflict required a "political settlement with the Taliban". He added that such a settlement would come only "after Taliban’s acceptance of the Afghan constitution and the peaceful rotation of power by democratic means."
The Afghan talks come against the backdrop of a Bush administration decision to send 8,000 more US troops to Afghanistan next year, and the expressed desire of the US commander, Gen. David. D. McKiernan, for yet another 15,000 combat and support troops. Both Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain have said they would increase US troop strength in Afghanistan.
Obama has said he would send troops now scheduled to remain in Iraq until next summer to Afghanistan as an urgent priority, whereas McCain has not said when or how he would increase the troop level.
Such a US troop increase is exactly what the British fear, however. The British ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, was quoted in a diplomatic cable leaked to the French investigative magazine "Le Canard enchaine" last week as telling the French deputy ambassador that the US presidential candidates "must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan".
In the French diplomatic report of the Sep. 2 conversation, Cowper-Coles is reported as saying that an increase in foreign troop strength in Afghanistan would only exacerbate the overall political problem in Afghanistan.
The report has the ambassador saying that such an increase "would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets" for the insurgents.
Cowper-Coles is quoted as saying foreign forces are the "lifeline" of the Afghan regime and that additional forces would "slow down and complicate a possible emergence from the crisis."
In an obvious reference to the intention to rely on higher levels of military force, Cowper-Coles said US strategy in Afghanistan "is destined to fail".
Cowper-Coles is reported to have put much of the blame for the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan on the Karzai government. "The security situation is getting worse," the report quoted him as saying. "So is corruption, and the government had lost all trust."
The report makes it clear that the British want to withdraw all their troops from Afghanistan within five to 10 years. Cowper-Coles is said to have suggested that the only way to do so is through the emergence of what he called an "acceptable dictator".
The British foreign office has denied that the report reflected the policy of the government itself. Nevertheless, statements by Brigadier Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, last week, underlined the gulf between US and British views on Afghanistan.
"We’re not going to win this war," said Carleton-Smith, according to The Sunday Times of London Sep. 28. Carleton-Smith, commander of an air assault brigade who completed two tours in Afghanistan, suggested that foreign troops would and should leave Afghanistan without having defeated the insurgency. "We may leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency," he said.
Like Cowper-Coles, Carleton-Smith suggested that the real problem for the coalition was not military but political. "This struggle is more down to the credibility of the Afghan Government," he said, "than the threat from the Taliban."
When Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as British prime minister in June 2007, British officials concluded that the Taliban was too deep-rooted to be defeated militarily, according to a report in The Guardian last October. The Brown government decided to pursue a strategy of courting "moderate" Taliban leaders and fighters who were believed to be motivated more by tribal obligation than jihadi ideology.
That idea was in line with US strategy as well. Now, however, both Karzai and the British have moved beyond that to a policy of negotiating directly and officially with the Taliban. For the British it appears to be part of an exit strategy that is not shared by Washington.
Defense Secretary Gates responded to Carleton-Smith’s remarks Tuesday by reiterating the official US view that additional forces are needed in Afghanistan and implying that the British’s officer’s views are "defeatist". Gates said, "[T]here certainly is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run."