When Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting between representatives of the Afghanistan government and the Taliban in September 2008, the significance of the event was far from clear. No result could of course have been expected from this initial contact but there was no sign that it could be the precursor to sustained negotiations. Riyadh’s Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal, in a casual aside nearly a month later, indicated that the Kingdom would mediate only if the Afghan prin cipals so desired. Moreover, the meeting apparently merged with a larger iftar gathering and might not therefore have reflected anything more than Ramadhan bonhomie. The Kabul-Taliban contact was still noteworthy because of the background against which it took place. The military campaign being waged in Afghanistan by the United States-led coalition is floundering by all accounts. The Taliban has been able to maintain, perhaps even increase, its cadre strength as it stokes the insurgency in a steadily widening swathe of the Pashtun belt. Although the coalition’s command structure was recently streamlined, with NATO contingents being brought under the overall control of a U.S. general, there is growing disagreement about the strategy to be followed. Washington seems set on increasing troop strength and changing the rules of engagement so as to allow special forces to strike Taliban bases on the eastern side of the Durand Line. Officials from other NATO countries have dropped strong hints that it is time to draw up withdrawal plans.
What is amply clear is that the Taliban cannot be crushed by military means alone. It is highly unlikely that the coalition would be able to completely control the rural areas, where the insurgency is raging fiercely, even after building up its troop strength. In such a situation it would be forced to continue with the current tactic of using high-level bombing against Taliban targets. Attacks of this sort have caused an unconscionably high level of civilian casualties. With development work also falling far short of the mark because of corruption and incompetence, it is small wonder that so many Afghans have turned against the Kabul regime and the foreign forces backing it. The U.S. military commanders seem to have realised the need to identify insurgent leaders with whom deals can be made. Theoretically, this might not be an impossible task since the Taliban is not so much a monolithic block as a matrix of several intertwined strands. In practical terms, those charged with implementing such a policy would have their work cut out as they try to ascertain the motivations and price-tags of different insurgent groups.
6 months ago