In Afghanistan, Talks and Peace Will Only Follow More Fighting

Word leaked this month that President Karzai has been trying to engage the Taliban in back-channel talks.  Karzai is desperate to end the war that has killed over 8,000 civilians in the past year alone, according to the UN.
But it is not likely Karzai’s ploy will work. It will just annoy his allies and disturb his friends.
For those who hope this raises a chance for peace, forget it.  There is a lot more fighting to come as America pulls out because the Taliban have little incentive to settle right now.
This is not the latest scheme to engage to Taliban in talks. That’s been happening for years.  For instance, the Taliban opened an office to hold talks in the United Arab Emirates in June 2013, but this closed a few weeks later after a series of mis-steps on all sides.
In late 2012 the Taliban met with Afghan government officials in France.  They even met with the two Afghan women included in the government’s delegation.  There, the Taliban said that they don’t need to have a monopoly on power in any government after Hamid Karzai leaves.
This web of talks and meetings suggests that the Taliban is softening, reforming and becoming more government-worthy.  It all raises the question whether peace might eventually break out.
But peace in the near term is unlikely for a few simple reasons.
One is the nature of the war.  If the Taliban really wanted to push out the Americans they would stop fighting tomorrow.  If the number of attacks dropped to zero the Americans, in this political climate, would have no reason not to leave immediately and completely, leaving no military advisors.
But the Taliban won’t do that because that’s not how insurgencies work.  Insurgencies are like trains.  They take a long time to start and a long time to stop. There are sub-commanders all up and down the food chain that have been encouraged to fight for years.  Turning them off again takes time.
Then again, insurgencies are like airplanes too.  If they stop moving, they stop flying.  It is death for an insurgency to quit fighting; fighters go home, get a job and they don’t want to come back.  To pause the fighting is to really end the fighting for good.  To take a one-year break to allow the US to leave is simply impossible for this reason.
So the Taliban face a basic choice: keep fighting or stop fighting forever.  They’ll keep fighting for that and other reasons too.
The Afghan army and police are pretty soon going to be lacking a lot of the things that make them stronger than the Taliban.  Fewer Americans on the ground means less air support and fire support and much worse logistics.  These were all propped up by the Americans.
The flow of replacement equipment will dwindle to a trickle; already when the Afghan Army’s unarmored Ford Ranger pickups get blown up it is tough to get them replaced.
A lot of this help is going away.  Already Congress cut the civilian aid by half in 2014.
The Afghan military needs a minimum of $4 billion a year to function, but this is in jeopardy with no guarantees it will continue at any level, for any specified amount of time.  Try being an Afghan commander planning a war while facing that problem!
(Which is too bad. The US absolutely should spend $4 billion a year after they leave because it costs a lot less to have Afghans fight than Americans. But that’s a story for another day).
So the Taliban have a huge incentive to push the security forces and see how hollow they become in 2104, 2015 and 2016.  Without enough guns and ammunition, maybe the government will fold.
Meanwhile, in the villages the Afghan civil government has failed to affect many people’s lives. This lowers the people’s support for the government.
Even though the economy is better and there is healthcare for some, and schools are open in many provinces, are there development projects?  Does the Afghan government, except in a minority of cases, provide needed services that keep the villagers talking to the district governments?  Services such as impartial judges, free healthcare, adequate roads and a few working wells to drink from?  Sure it does in some places but usually not often enough, or even not at all, especially in the restive south and east.
Besides, the Taliban are committed to their cause. They believe in this jihad as a calling.  Anyway, most Taliban commanders have no alternate day job.  Is a fighting mullah really going to hand in his AK-47 and start working as a property developer?  Not likely.
Put this all together and there will be no ceasefire until the Taliban really try to win, give it their best shot and fail.
Simply put, the Taliban, with their 30,000 fighters, have little incentive to stop fighting.  The Afghan government is going to get weaker, not stronger after the Americans leave, despite its 352,000-man security forces.  If the Taliban keep fighting they can test just how much weaker the government will get.  Maybe they’ll capture a province or two, or (less likely) the whole shebang.
It is nice to think that talks will work (despite their poor progress thus far).  That the Taliban will act honorably, and if the movement attains power it will not kill its political “allies”.  That the Taliban really mean it when they present a kinder and gentler side.  That they really want to compromise.
For me, I’ll pay more attention to peace talks in 2016, once the Taliban have tried to take over and failed.  That’s when the talking will probably bear some fruit, at last.

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