Reconciling with Taliban requires new approach
President Barack Obama’s reaching out to moderate elements in the Taliban draws immediate comparisons to the Iraq "Awakening." American leaders fractured the Sunni insurgency in Iraq by calling a truce with many of the tribes they fought in the first years of the war, allowing the tribes to turn on al-Qaida.
Obama is trying to duplicate that strategy in Afghanistan, but the wars are two very different conflicts. Here’s a look at how a Taliban reconciliation compares to the Iraq Awakening.
Reconciliation with the Taliban is similar to the Iraq Awakening because:U.S. forces are reaching out to those they once fought.
In Iraq, Sunni fighters who were once bitter enemies of the United States stopped their attacks on coalition forces and began fighting al-Qaida. Obama’s proposal to reach out to the Taliban attempts to duplicate that approach.
Irreconcilable fighters are likely the minority in both cases.
Vice President Joe Biden said during a speech to NATO that just 5 percent of the Taliban "is incorrigible, not susceptible to anything other than being defeated." A quarter aren’t so sure, and 70 percent are only involved for the money, he estimated. The precision of those numbers may be debatable, but committed fighters tend to be the minority in most conflicts.
The reconciliation is part of a larger course change.
The Awakening was just one piece of the larger "surge" strategy, although perhaps the most vital part. Along with reconciliation came increased troop levels, a focus on protecting the population and more-limited war aims. The decision to reach out to the Taliban also comes at a time of change.
Reconciliation with the Taliban differs from the Iraq Awakening because:The Iraq Awakening arose out of a fractured alliance.
Throughout history, alliances have split apart when one member’s ambitions became excessive. Al-Qaida in Iraq’s brutal enforcement of Islamic law alienated less doctrinaire Sunni insurgents. The secular-fundamentalist split was a schism waiting to happen.
Reconcilable Taliban, on the other hand, are ideologically akin to other Taliban. On top of that, the Taliban’s conservative ideals are broadly popular among Afghans. The group also has a history of rule that many Afghans consider successful, albeit brutal.
Iraqi insurgents were being hit hard by multiple enemies.
Sunni insurgents in Baghdad were quickly losing ground to Shiite militias at the same time they were fighting coalition and Iraqi forces. So they did what any other rational group overwhelmed by a war on two fronts would do — made peace with one of the two sides. Afghanistan is not torn apart by the sectarian fighting that devastated Iraq.
Insurgents initiated the Awakening.
Sunni insurgents first approached American leaders about a truce in the summer of 2004. U.S. leaders rebuffed them. The reconciliation only happened two years later after a new cadre of leaders decided to take advantage of their overtures. The Taliban is not seeking a widespread truce. Leaders from the group are reported to have ridiculed the suggestion.
Taliban reconciliation has the support of the Afghan government.
The Iraq Awakening occurred in spite of the Iraqi government, not because of it.
The government’s Shiite leadership bitterly opposed the Awakening, and many Iraqi leaders remained skeptical of working with former insurgents even after they took control of the "Sons of Iraq," the neighborhood watch groups that arose from the movement.
The Afghan government pushed for reconciliation early and already has former Taliban in leadership positions.