New US strategy in Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban

If US can talk to its longtime enemy the Taliban, why can it not talk to Syria’s Fatah Al-Sham or other Islamist factions?

New US strategy in Afghanistan Talking to the Taliban

In a rare nod to engaging Islamists in Afghanistan, on Aug. 21 U.S. President Donald Trump said that his administration was willing to talk to “some elements” of the Taliban. Trump’s position, and his whole speech, were uncharacteristic of his populist inflammatory rhetoric. So out of element Trump was that night that his deputy assistant, the controversial Sebastian Gorka (who was fired just a few days later), blamed the president for not including any mention of “radical Islamic terrorists” in his Afghanistan speech.

The following day, America’s two top officials in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson and Special Envoy Hugo Lorens, further expounded on the “talking to Taliban” part of Trump’s speech, saying that it is time for America to talk to the Taliban and end 16 years of war.

It seems that Trump has realized that neither he nor his cohort of populist agitators have any idea how to deal with America’s domestic or foreign problems. Therefore, over the past few months, the U.S. president has been veering away from his original cast of administrators and replacing them with generals. The generals, however, are not a silver bullet that can make all of America’s -- and Trump’s -- problems, go away. Generals in the Trump administration are the equivalent of handing America’s leadership over to “autopilot,” while Trump pursues the only goal of his first-term agenda: Getting re-elected for a second term.

By putting America on autopilot, Trump has effectively let the establishment take over. In Iraq, America’s “establishment” policy was designed by generals in the first place: Talk to “moderate” elements in al-Qaeda Iraq to peel them away from the radical ones, and increase the number of U.S. troops to help the moderates beat the radicals and rule.

The “surge of troops” worked in Iraq, until then President Barack Obama “took his foot off of the gas pedal.” Obama prematurely gave up on America’s Sunni allies, and let their Shia rivals beat them, thus undoing most of what the “surge” had done. To put Iraq back together, Obama tried to replicate the “surge.” But because of his engagement with Iran, which opposes propping up Iraqi Sunnis, Obama failed, and hence stepped back. Obama ended up succumbing to Iranian policy in Iraq: Let the Shia decimate the Sunnis.

In 2010, Obama replicated the Iraqi surge in Afghanistan. The plan worked for a while as Kabul rolled back the Taliban and controlled most of the cities and countryside. However, by the time U.S. troops started withdrawing, and given the corrupt and fractious nature of Afghani politics, the results of the surge were reversed, as the authority of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani started shrinking from that of the country’s sovereign to a mere mayor of Kabul.

Realizing that the tribal and fractious nature of the population makes it nearly impossible for America to patch Afghanistan back together, hand it over to a central government, and leave, America’s generals have come up with a new strategy: Make peace with Islamists, as long as these militant non-governmental groups agree not to turn the stateless territories under their control into safe havens from where terrorists can launch attacks against America or its interests around the world.

Such was the idea of then presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama when -- during a 2008 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- he asked America’s two top officials in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, what it would take for America not to rebuild Iraq or make a democracy out of it, but to patch it up in an acceptable way that could allow Americans an honorable exit.

Today in Afghanistan, the U.S. is replicating Iraq in 2009, with the difference that the bar for talking to Islamists is lower, since sending more U.S. troops overseas is becoming more politically costly by the day. Hence, the U.S. now does not mind a de facto Taliban emirate, even if such an emirate does not toe a policy of human and women’s rights, as long as it does not provide an anti-Western safe haven. In a way, the U.S. has decided to let natives decide their form of government, even if such form does not confirm with Western ideals of how countries should be governed.

Which brings us to the Syrian question, where the U.S. policy has been more secular than anywhere else in the world, to the extent that in the various documents that have been produced in the successive “peace conferences” on Syria, the U.S. and the world demanded that any future government in Syria be secular, a demand that does not fit Washington itself, where the government is not denominational, but is not secular either. The White House lights a Christmas Tree and a Hanukkah Menorah. The U.S. executive mansion also hosts an annual iftar during Ramadan.

So if the U.S. can tolerate a Shia religious government in Iraq and a Sunni religious emirate in Afghanistan, why can Washington not accept an Islamic emirate, alongside other forms of secular and non-secular governments, in Syria? And if the U.S. can talk to the Taliban, which has been Washington’s bitter terrorist enemy for so long, why can it not talk to Syria’s Fatah Al-Sham or other Islamist factions that are not the radical Daesh?

Fatah Al-Sham is the successor of Jabhat Al-Nusra, a group of Syrian Islamists who had presumably taken an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda, America’s top terrorist enemy. But, realizing that the American policy toward terrorism had become more lenient as long as these terrorist organizations stopped practicing cross-border or international violence, Al-Nusra reinvented itself by dissociating itself from al-Qaeda. While many said that such a step was only nominal, it might be good to remember that al-Qaeda itself is a franchise of independent groups who are linked on paper only.

Like the Taliban, Fatah Al-Sham is a nightmare of a government that does not allow free speech and enforces extremely austere public rules. But if the U.S. is not in the business of spreading the Western principles of enlightenment, or applying pressure -- diplomatic or otherwise -- on governments to make them endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and observe women’s rights as encoded in developed countries, then there is no reason why Washington should make an enemy out of Fatah Al-Sham.

If U.S. negotiators can pry Fatah Al-Sham away from al-Qaeda and ensure that an Islamic emirate in Syria’s northern province of Idlib will not be a safe haven for international terrorism, then there is no reason why American diplomacy reaches out to the Taliban but not Fatah Al-Sham.

There is also no reason why the U.S. can talk to Islamists in Afghanistan, where the war on Daesh is still raging, but cannot talk to Islamists in Syria, where a similar war on Daesh has been going on for a while.

Source: Anadolu Agency

Hussain Abdul Hussain
Hussain is a Washington-based political analyst. Among others, he has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post and Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai.