My experience showed me how diverse the groups fighting the Americans and their allies are. The men I met had diverse motives and only vague goals. They bickered among themselves. They were locals fighting for their villages, their country, their religion. They were very atomized. This means that there can be no mass defection, since leaders at the village level are so important, and there are thousands of them.
This also leads to the rise of more radical young leaders. Some were willing to strike a deal with the government in Kabul. Many Taliban leaders are tired of fighting. They have grown older and are tired of life on the run, away from home. One problem with the idea of merely striking a deal with the Taliban is that it will perpetuate one of the greatest mistakes made since 2001, the lack of justice. Warlords were empowered by the Americans and this would be more of the same, the continued denial of justice to the Afghan people and continued impunity for human rights violations.
The arrival of Petraeus in Afghanistan has come with a return of the “kill or capture” approach to winning the war as well as the creation of more militias. In Afghanistan militias have a history of easily shifting alliances, and those who reconcile today can fight again tomorrow. Until now there has been no significant reconciliation or Taliban defection, and there is no reason to expect any. So far there have only been talks about talks, and the whole thing is overblown. Why should the Taliban negotiate when they are winning and time is on their side? Why should they negotiate with a weak and illegitimate Karzai? And why would a weak and illegitimate Karzai want to strike a deal with the powerful Taliban who have far more legitimacy than him in parts of the country? What would he gain? Also, while many Afghans may welcome an end to the fighting and the return of the Taliban, many despise and fear the Taliban. Reconciliation with the Taliban can lead many Afghans to embrace their own militias in self defense. The point is that there is no apparent solution to the mess the Americans have helped create.
Which is why a firm exit date in 2011 remains necessary, it seems to me. Think of the last year as one last chance to get a face-saving lull, some kind of least-worst settlement, as in Iraq. But if we don't get one, we leave anyway. In terms of counter-terrorism, we can keep the worst of mid-level al Qaeda at bay. In terms of domestic politics, is the GOP really going to campaign on intensifying the war still further?
What troubles me is the moral case for upping the ante this past year if we knew realistically that the odds of anything better than a very compromised face-saver were always pretty close to zero. How do you send a young man to his death for that? Or worse, to prove that the war cannot be won and not be seen at home as a weakling?
From a reader's quote on Tom Ricks's blog today:
Someone dies in combat. At Brigade level, he's a social security number and a status that gets tracked to Landstuhl. At Division, he's a storyboard. At Corps, he's a statistic. At Platoon and Company, he's a gaping wound in the soul of a hundred men. To his family, it's the end of the world.