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Fri, 17 Sep 2010 22:34:19 -0400
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Afghan Talks: A Delicate Moment

Dispatches From The Edge
by Conn Hallinan
published by Portside
August 17, 2010

Peace talks involving the Taliban and its allies are
apparently underway, according to the Asia Times (AT),
and from most accounts a deal appears doable. AT's
Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad reported
Sept. 11 and 15th that, under the auspices of the
Pakistan military and intelligence services, "serious
negotiations" were taking place, with Saudi Arabia
serving as the go-between to the U.S.

That the antagonists are looking for a way out of the
nine-year war is not surprising, given the
deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan
and the rising tide of opposition in Europe and the
U.S. to continuing the war. What is surprising is that
at the same time as there looks to be a possible
diplomatic breakthrough, the U.S. has launched a major
military operation in Kandahar.

Is the new offensive a cover for the secret talks or an
effort by the U.S. military to derail any possibility
of serious negotiations?

According to the AT, while Afghan Taliban leader Mullah
Omar has not been directly involved in the talks,
according to a "Pakistan security official" the elusive
cleric "has shown a positive and flexible attitude."
The talks also include Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been
a major thorn in the side of the occupation troops,
particularly the U.S.

There are several sticking points, but none of them
seem insurmountable. The Taliban want to talk about the
60 Afghans currently imprisoned in Guantanamo, while
the U.S. wants to make sure al-Qaeda can no longer
operate from within Afghanistan.

On the first point Pakistan appears hopeful that the
U.S. will release the detainees. It "would be a good
will gesture from the American side," a Pakistani
official told the AF, "and also set the stage for
negotiations between the Taliban and Washington."

Regarding al-Qaeda, the Taliban say they are willing to
make sure that no "outside" forces use Afghanistan as a
springboard to attack other nations. The Taliban have
agreed to expel the terrorist organization, but they
argue that al-Qaeda be given "honorable treatment."
What that means is not clear, but it is not likely to
become a major sticking point. U.S. intelligence says
al-Qaeda has virtually no presence in Afghanistan.
According to Shahzad, the terrorist organization is
more interested in the Central Asian "Stans" and
southern Russia. On Sept 9, the group set off a bomb in
the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz that killed
18 people.

According to AT, al-Qaeda would rather get the U.S. out
of Afghanistan than for it to have an in-country
presence, and the organization would have no objection
to the Taliban cutting a deal with Washington.

The Americans also want the right to keep troops in
Northern Afghanistan, the home of its major in-country
allies, the Northern Alliance, but, according to
officials close to the talks, the Taliban want all
foreign troops out.

The Taliban originally demanded the re-establishment of
the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan that existed at the
time of the 2001 invasion. But in Ramadan talks held in
the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, "Taliban
representatives indicated a willingness to accept a
more broad-based political setup in Afghanistan," says
Shahzad.

The Taliban are still hostile to some of their internal
opponents, ranging from former mujahedeen leaders to
men like General Abdul Rashid Dostrum of the Northern
Alliance. However, according to Pakistan officials, the
group is willing to work with other people associated
with their opponents, provided "they have a clean
reputation and have never been involved in bloodshed."
The "clean reputation" refers to graft. As for the
"bloodshed," all sides have at one point or the other
fought one another, so it is unclear what the Taliban
mean.

 	"The process of bringing the Taliban to the
 	negotiating table is gaining momentum," says
 	Shahzad, "with the United States and its allies
 	escalating their efforts to get America out of
 	the Afghan quagmire."

So then why has the U.S. launched an offensive into
western Zhari near the city of Kandahar? This is the
same region that the Canadians went into in 2006 and
got thoroughly thrashed. Not even the U.S. commander on
the ground thinks much is going to come of it. Lt. Col.
Peter Benchoff of the 101st Airborne told the Los
Angeles Times that, as far as western Zhari goes,
"Security sucks. Development? Nothing substantial.
Information campaign? Nobody believes us. Governance?
We've had one hour long visit by a governmental
official in the last two and a half months."

The 101st's base is regularly mortared, and three
contractors were killed two weeks ago by Taliban
shells. The town has no schools, no clinics and no
government presence.

Indeed, the situation all over the country is going
downhill for the U.S. and NATO. In spite of the surge-
allied troops levels have risen from 30,000 in 2005 to
150,000 today-the country is less secure and more
violent than it was in 2001.

The Afghan Study Group found that American combat
deaths have sharply escalated, as have roadside bombs,
suicide attacks, assassinations, and civilian
casualties. According to the International Security
Assistance Force, shellings, bombings and small arms
attacks for August 2010 were up 49 percent over August
of last year. And local Afghan media sources report
that there are four to five assassinations every day in
Kandahar City.

For the Sept 19 election there were 350 fewer polling
places-14 percent of the total-than there were last
year, because the government could not provide
security.

More than that, Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service
found that there has been a sharp drop in the number of
roadside bombs being reported by local people. "The
percentage of Taliban roadside bombs turned in had been
averaging 3.5 percent from November 2009 through March
2010," says Porter, but after the U.S. stepped up its
nighttime raids with Special Forces, "the percentage of
turn-ins fell precipitously to 1.5 percent." In short,
the "surge" has deeply angered the average Afghan.

Parts of the country that used to be safe, like the
north and east, are increasingly insecure, and in
places like the North, most the insurgents are non-
Pashtuns. Pashtuns make up the bulk of the Taliban and
are mainly concentrated in the south. According to the
United Nations, travel is no longer safe in 30 percent
of the country, and insurgent attacks have more than
doubled from a year ago-from 630 in August 2009, to
1,353 in August 2010.

The Americans attribute the rise in violence to the
surge, but most of the attacks are occurring in places
where the surge has no presence. "We do not support the
perspective that this constitutes `things getting worse
before they get better'" Nic Lee, director of Afghan
NGO Safety Office, told the New York Times, "but see it
consistent with the five-year trend of things getting
worse."

Under pressure to show "progress: in the Afghan war,
the U.S. military has fallen back on a device it used
during the war in Southeast Asia: the body count. Gen.
David Petraeus told National Public Radio that this
summer, NATO forces has killed or captured 2,974
insurgents, 235 of them "commanders." But Porter found
that the captures included "suspected" insurgents,
which generally means anyone in the immediate vicinity
of a raid. The Guardian concluded that as many as two-
thirds of those detained in such raids are innocent.

Porter also questions the "commander" designation,
since the Taliban is not organized into formal fighting
units. "The vast majority of those `leaders', it
appears, were low level Taliban personnel who are
easily replaced," he says. Given that the step up in
raids over the past year has not resulted in a
reduction of insurgent activity-indeed, quite the
opposite-Porter's doubts seem valid.

Is the Kandahar operation, then, blind folly-Gen. David
Petraeus is lobbying for keeping U.S. troops in
Afghanistan for years to come-pre-negotiating
positioning,  or theater, because the enormous U.S.
military budget is coming under increasing pressure? No
one is going to suggest cutting military spending while
the troops are locked in battle, a point that U.S.
Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been
arguing to Congress.

The danger is that the U.S. will step back from an
opportunity to end the bloodletting in Afghanistan
because Washington is worried that it will look like a
defeat-it is-or because keeping the war going will
armor the Pentagon from spending cuts. There was a
moment like this in 2007, but the U.S. ignored a
tentative Taliban peace proposal and the war got worse.
If the Obama Administration is not careful, it could
happen again, and the U.S. will slip deeper into the
Afghan quagmire.

For other writing by Conn Hallinan see
dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

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