In a sign of the surreality into which we have descended under the Obama administration, the media have been reporting with a straight face that the U.S. will shortly begin talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, and that President Obama calls the agreement for the talks an “important first step toward reconciliation.”
To recap: in October 2001, U.S. forces entered Afghanistan to depose the terrorist Taliban regime, which had given the 9/11 attackers some of their most important support. From that day to this, the Taliban have not changed their stripes. They are still terrorists. They intimidate and murder Afghan and Pakistani civilians, in their quest to retain a brutal control over territory in both nations. They regularly attack U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Their interest in “reconciliation” is exactly what it has been since 2001: an interest in regaining control of Afghanistan, ideally without having to meet NATO forces in battle.
The announcement of talks with the Taliban coincided with a rocket attack by the Taliban on the U.S. air base at Bagram, in which four of our servicemen were killed. The Taliban promptly took credit for the attack; shortly before it, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Quetta Shura Taliban in Pakistan, promised that he would retake Kabul “within a week” of the U.S. troop pull-out, scheduled for completion by the end of 2014.
It is thus not clear what there is to talk about, in terms of U.S. interests. We know what the Taliban want. If we are looking for common ground with them, the only option is to modify our position.
Karzai obsessed with nameplates?
If you were wondering whether the Hamid Karzai government would lose confidence in us because of this move, wonder no more. Once the Taliban talks were announced, Karzai suspended negotiations on the future status of U.S.-Afghan relations, and threatened to boycott any talks with the Taliban. The State Department rushed out with a statement that – notwithstanding President Obama’s hopes for reconciliation – no talks with the Taliban had been confirmed. But today, State Department officials are telling CBS that talks are back on. Secretary Kerry reportedly got on the phone with Karzai to assure him that the U.S. has no intention of recognizing an official status for the Taliban.
Which means, of course, that any talks will be meaningless, and therefore should not be held at all. To crown the surreal moment in news reporting, CBS and other outlets are characterizing the dust-up as if it revolves – by implication, foolishly – around the “nameplate” the Taliban have chosen to use. The sign outside the Taliban’s office in Qatar – yes, the Taliban now have an office in Qatar – describes its mission as representing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the Taliban government we removed in 2001.
It’s not actually psychotic or even bipolar of Mr. Karzai to object to that, and to decline to negotiate with the Taliban on that basis. CBS reports this detail in a breezy, dismissive manner, however, as if it’s all a humorous example of diplomatic color, like the Obama-Putin standoff over the gym in Northern Ireland.
Just a short time ago, the UK Guardian updated its reporting to indicate that the talks with the Taliban have now definitely been cancelled, after “a diplomatic row about the Taliban’s new Qatar office.” It does tend to quash the enthusiasm for talks when one party falsely proclaims itself to be a sovereign “emirate,” and thus to be a competitor with another party for the same sovereignty.
In a way, it’s good that the media simply act as mindless repeaters for whatever comes out of the Obama administration. We can be certain that what we’re getting from them is Pure Obama. The mainstream media apply little to no critical thought to what they obediently relay from Obama’s executive team.
Situation growing dicey in Afghanistan
But there is good reason for concern about the path of surreality we are on. Recall that the drawdown of the total ISAF force has begun already. As we speak, the Brits are pulling out nearly half of their force, which comprised about 9,500 troops at the end of 2012. This week, security services for the NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as for local governments throughout the country, have been turned over officially to the Afghans.
Unfortunately, as the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John F. Sopko, pointed out in May, our personnel goal for Afghan security-force training has never been met, and the Pentagon’s own latest figures indicate the number is down about 4,700 this year from what it was last year. The standard of readiness has been lowered over time as well:
A Government Accountability Office report released in February said … that a claimed improvement in the effectiveness of Afghan security forces has been partly due to the lowering of standards by U.S.-led forces. In August 2011, U.S. military officials changed the highest possible rating for Afghan units from “independent,” meaning they could operate without help from U.S. or coalition troops, to “independent with advisors,” the GAO said.
But conditions are already getting worse in Afghanistan, as the Red Cross warned in April. Following a late-May attack on its office in Jalalabad, the Red Cross pulled some of its personnel out of the country.
Britain’s Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, commanding the UK troops in Afghanistan, warns that an increase in Taliban attacks should be expected:
“There’s definitely a sense that the Taliban would like to appear to compel the international community’s withdrawal, and certainly ISAF’s withdrawal,” said Carter, who leaves Afghanistan next month to become head of the British Army.
During a trip to Afghanistan this month, the UK Defense Minister, Philip Hammond, helpfully compared Britain’s experience in Afghanistan with that of the United States in Vietnam.
The U.S. force level is to drop from 66,000 to about 32,000 by early 2014. We should be clear that with this reduction in the force level, it will not be possible for U.S. forces to mount an offensive while also holding territory elsewhere, when the Taliban retake strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The full extent of the drawdown is still being negotiated with the Afghans; the talks Karzai suspended this week had that point on the agenda.
A key vulnerability for NATO forces will continue to be their lines of supply, and we can expect increased attacks there as well. Supply lines are a vexed issue for NATO in Afghanistan; in the last five years, Pakistan has frequently closed the Khyber Pass to NATO supplies (see here, here, and here as well). Islamabad uses supply-line closures to make points with the U.S. when we launch drone strikes into Pakistan.
Since late 2008, the logistics alternative to convoys from Pakistan has been the “Northern Distribution Network,” or NDN, which relies on transit through the former-Soviet “Stans” of Central Asia. But a big hole will open up in the NDN in mid-2014. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly today (20 June) to terminate its lease of Manas Air Base to the United States when it expires on 11 July 2014. Although Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, is closer to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan has been much more reliable in terms of customs practices and ease of logistic movement (see here as well). The base at Manas, a two-hour flight from Kabul, has been the key hub into Afghanistan for the NDN; there is no location that can replace it in this role.
Manas is also used routinely to refuel support aircraft – intelligence and surveillance, airborne control, tankers – operating over Afghanistan. Its loss will be felt keenly in that regard.
It is not too early to predict that the situation for our troops in Afghanistan will be substantially worse a year from now, if we remain on our current policy course. There will not be enough of them in country for anything but defensive operations, and their combat support resources will be available only through a set of very vulnerable pipelines.
Everyone else can foresee that. If the Taliban don’t have us over a barrel now, they have every prospect of it by mid-2014, and they know it. In light of this, it is breathtakingly stupid to seek talks with them today. The Taliban have never acted in a conciliatory manner; there is no basis for a hope that they can be talked into a meaningful power-sharing arrangement under today’s conditions. It doesn’t really even matter why Team Obama is doing this. What matters is that it’s being done. The signal has been sent: the Obama administration not only plans to leave a vulnerable troop contingent in Afghanistan in a worsening situation, but it is foolish enough – vainglorious enough? – to think it can negotiate with the Taliban.
Sadly, Obama is arranging for U.S. policy to be held hostage not merely by the Taliban and Pakistan, but by Russia and even Iran as well. The NDN depends absolutely on Russia’s quiescence. Meanwhile, the Iranian border with Afghanistan can be a vulnerability for Iran, or it can be one for U.S. forces: the difference lies in our force posture. Transitioning to hunkered down, defensive operations will change the dynamic in the whole region. The current uncertainty about what the U.S. troop presence will actually look like by the end of 2014 only amplifies the negative dynamic trend.
In these circumstances, it will probably be best if U.S. forces are entirely withdrawn, rather than lingering in a strategic twilight, with enemies proliferating around them but no executable guidance for their mission. What “might have been” in Afghanistan – as in Iraq – is not on the table now, with our current commander-in-chief. It was never inevitable that the United States be chased from Afghanistan in a cloud of terror, and it still isn’t. But conditions are ripening for a Taliban attempt to hand us a spectacular tactical defeat, perhaps some time in early 2015 – if not before – and thus to make us turn tail. An American president who actually seeks negotiations with them, while holding a weak hand that is largely of his own making, is just the president the Taliban will be prepared to try that on.