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The peace opportunity presented by the new stalemate in the Afghan war

By Gary Anderson
Best Defense northern Afghanistan correspondent

The Taliban recently overran Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth largest city. Afghan forces backed by American air power are slowly taking it back. The loss of Kunduz was a temporary political embarrassment to the Afghan government. It may have caused President Obama to reverse his timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.

This indicates the war against the Taliban is a stalemate that neither side will likely win. The realists on both sides recognize that fact, and therein lies opportunity to open American-supported peace talks with the Taliban.

Some discouraged Taliban fighters are turning to the Islamic State for guidance. This is a clear threat to Taliban leadership that the Afghan and American governments could never pose. At this point, NATO and Kabul may seem like the lesser of two evils to the Taliban leadership. We Americans got into Afghanistan to oust the al Qaeda foreign fighters who used that nation to plan and execute the 9-11 bombings. At that time, the Taliban under Mullah Omar were providing sanctuary to the terrorists. We helped the Afghans oust the Taliban from control of the country, and no al Qaeda attacks on us have originated from Afghanistan since 2001. Omar is dead but a new group of fanatic jihadist in the guise of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters looms as anew threat to Afghan independence. Times have changed, and our strategy should reflect that fact.

The Taliban have two major goals. The first is to impose Sharia Law on the areas they control. The second is the elimination of foreign military influence in Afghanistan. Ironically, the American objective has always been to also eliminate foreign fighters in the form of al Qaeda and other foreign jihadist elements; if the foreign jihadists can be factored out, we Americans have no reason to fight because governance is an Afghan affair.

The Afghan government will never be able to impose its will on the areas of Afghanistan where the unique Pashtun interpretation of Sharia law is intermixed with tribal tradition; this is called Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtun), which the Taliban dictates in the areas that it controls. Nor will the Taliban be able to impose their will on the major urban areas which desire to follow some form of governance that practices a more liberal form of Islam allowing for more secular lifestyles and legal models. The current conflict is a recipe for a forever war that only profits criminal groups such as the Haqqani network which pose as Taliban to cover their otherwise illicit activities.

The United States should encourage a negotiated settlement that involves local referenda allowing each district to decide if it wants to follow Sharia law or the more westernized legal approach embodied in the current Afghan constitution. The caveat would be that men and women of legal age could opt to leave their home district if they do not want to live under the legal practices of that area. That would address the first major issue in a democratic fashion that satisfies human rights concerns. Those of us who worked governance issues in Afghanistan realized long ago that the centralized model is unworkable. The country is too undeveloped for it.

A solution to the second issue would be to rid the nation of foreign fighters. The Taliban would have to commit to keeping al Qaeda and other ISIS-like foreigners out of Sharia leaning districts; the Taliban are more capable of sorting out foreign influences than the central government or American intelligence agencies in Pashtun lands. In return, the United States would withdraw its counterterrorist special forces. The only American military personnel remaining in the country would be trainers designed to bring the Afghan security forces to a level where they can eventually secure the country against foreign invasion.

A peace agreement will not immediately eliminate violence in Afghanistan, but it would change the nature of the conflict. The Taliban would have to struggle with an even more ruthless foreign jihadist threat for control of those districts that want to live under Sharia Law. Such a situation might actually create a coalition between Taliban and Afghan security forces against the foreign dominated jihadists of ISIS. The criminal Haqqani network is a wild card. As a “for profit” organization, Haqqani will likely negotiate with all sides, including the Afghan Government, to see where the greatest advantage to its self- interest resides. This kind of backstabbing and double dealing will see bizarre to most Americans, but it is business as usual in Afghanistan.

Such an agreement would recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party and they would have to produce results in the areas they control if local referendums were held on a regularly scheduled basis. This “one country, two systems” approach has worked elsewhere. It is worth a try. The alternative is an endless conflict that leaves the Afghan population caught between the forces of westernization and traditional tribal conservatism. It might take several decades, but I believe that more and more districts will opt for westernization over time. Anything is preferable to endless civil war.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who served as a civilian advisor in Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of international affairs.

Photo credit: Nasir Waqif/AFP/Getty Images