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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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."