February 2, 2020
It may seem enigmatic that during the same period the U.S. government and Taliban made unprecedented progress towards a peace agreement they unleashed unprecedented levels of violence. This is not a mysterious paradox, however, but a direct – and predictable – result of the so-called “fighting and talking” strategy that both sides have embraced.
On January 31, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its quarterly report said enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan hit a record level in the fourth quarter of 2019 in the same period U.S. and Taliban officials restarted peace talks.
This report came a few days after the U.S. Air Force revealed that the coalition released 7,423 munitions in Afghanistan last year, the most dropped since they began documenting the figure in 2006. The operations were accompanied by a spike in civilian deaths as well.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Taliban officials this week again claimed progress in peace talks that were rebooted in November when President Donald Trump announced that the insurgents wanted to “make a deal.”
That there is a complete disconnect between what the negotiators are saying and what is actually happening on the ground is empirically apparent. Not as obvious is the reason for said disconnect because it resides in the collective imagination of all the key players involved.
For they all share the dangerous idea that escalating military pressure can lead to concessions at the negotiating table. However, when both warring parties simultaneously embrace said theory the result is typically a vicious escalatory cycle akin to the classic security dilemma.
Quite often, instead of a reduction in violence, escalation ensues and undermines the very negotiations process over which one is trying to gain leverage. Moreover, per the security dilemma, neither side wants to unilaterally disarm.
U.S. officials are very aware of the strategy the Taliban have embraced and have been fairly clear about their own approach. The Pentagon in a recent report to Congress literally spelled out the fact that the Taliban were engaging in a “fight-and-talk” strategy “with no reduction in violence.”
In September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the Trump administration has been “fighting and talking in a way that America often doesn’t do. It’s what’s driven us to be able to have… success at the negotiating table.”
On January 27, former State Department official Laurel Miller told Stars and Stripes that both the U.S. and Taliban see violence as a way to guarantee the best terms in a peace agreement.
“The U.S. has been very explicitly using stepped-up attacks on the Taliban as a form of leverage,” Miller said.
The “talking” half of the strategy is always welcome under nearly any conditions. However, it is the other half of the strategy that is problematic for it entails not just fighting but an escalation in fighting.
Trump should take note that the Obama administration achieved zero on the political front with 100,000 troops occupying Afghanistan. In fact, the escalation strengthened Taliban resolve while increasing civilian deaths alienated the population.
Some scholars have suggested that the increase in violence amid the “fighting and talking” could be taken as a positive sign because the same thing happened ahead of peace deals in other cases including Northern Ireland.
Let us be clear: Afghanistan is not Northern Ireland. Unlike the Taliban, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is not an extension of a foreign power’s military apparatus. An end to the conflict in Ireland was in the IRA’s long-term interests. Pakistan, as I see it, has zero incentive to see the conflict in Afghanistan end until its proxy force – i.e., the Taliban – controls Kabul.
The most prudent first step would be to freeze the “fighting” half of the strategy – something the Afghan government has long asked for. However, it appears neither the Taliban nor the United States actually want a ceasefire.
Washington does not like the sound of a ceasefire because it would require the U.S. to – well – cease bombings, drone strikes and night raids. It is easy to condemn the Taliban for escalating attacks during the negotiations process but we forget the U.S. escalated bombings to historic levels.
On February 1, the U.S. State Department said Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad visited Pakistan to discuss efforts to reach a political settlement to end the war. Khalilzad welcomed Islamabad’s efforts to support a “reduction in violence” to pave the way to a ceasefire.
Khalilzad was echoing a sentiment expressed by Trump. On January 22, the White House in a statement said Trump wants the Taliban to demonstrate a “significant and lasting reduction in violence” that would facilitate meaningful negotiations.
It is worth underscoring what is being said here. The Trump administration is not asking for a ceasefire – it only wants a “reduction in violence” that will, someday, lead to one.
This phrasing, as SIGAR noted, has roiled Afghan officials who see it as a loophole for the Taliban to continue its antics.
“The Afghan government appeared to reject the concept of a reduction in violence, saying it does not have an accurate meaning in legal and military terms, and is not practical,” the SIGAR report said.
According to Pakistan’s Dawn, after the most recent round of talks, a Taliban spokesman claimed the two sides actually discussed a signing ceremony. The report also said the insurgents were willing to implement a ceasefire “for a brief period to allow for signing of the deal.” How honorable of them.
Even if the Taliban were so inclined questions loom over whether the insurgent group’s leaders are even capable of getting their foot soldiers to stop attacking.
Some onlookers were captivated by the Taliban agreeing to a three-day truce during Eid in 2018. However, Taliban chiefs convincing holy warriors to put down arms for a few days to respect a solemn religious holiday does not seem very impressive.
Even less impressive would be halting violence for a few hours during a signing ceremony.