A slew of questions were raised when a Chinook helicopter was shot down on 6 August in Afghanistan’s Wardak province killing 30 US servicemen – most of them elite Navy seals – and eight Afghans.
Will the heaviest loss of American lives in a single incident since 2001 heighten doubts about the Afghan mission among an already war-weary American public and Congress? Does the downing of the helicopter show the limits of America’s changed war effort that increasingly involves special operations missions? Will the blow signal a psychological shift in the war or was it a one-off? Does the incident dramatise the fragility of the transition underway, in which security responsibilities being transferred to Afghan forces have to be completed in 2014?
Most importantly what this development laid bare is the continuing tension in US policy between the declared goal of pursuing a negotiated political settlement and a military strategy still centred on kinetic actions. By the time the planned international conference convenes in Bonn this December, Washington wants to be able to announce that serious negotiations with the Taliban are in progress to end the decade long war. But are its military actions in Afghanistan serving this goal? Or are they undercutting the start of serious talks?
The answer is clouded in confusion. The helicopter incident came in the midst of escalating violence in Afghanistan. Recent months have seen a series of assassinations of high-profile Afghan officials and aggressive military actions by US/Nato forces targeting the Taliban in Kandahar, Helmand and extending to eastern Afghanistan. This cycle of violence has intensified even as trilateral meetings of the so-called core group – Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US – have been underway to discuss how to reach out to Taliban leaders and engage them in negotiations.
The Taliban’s hit and run tactics have increasingly taken the form of assassinating top Afghan government figures. Since March, several officials have been killed including President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai in a campaign that has especially unsettled Kandahar.
Meanwhile US Special Forces have been conducting an intense campaign of kill-or-capture raids to eliminate mid-level commanders and degrade the Taliban. These have entailed controversial night raids, which have provoked sharp criticism from President Karzai and calls from Afghans for an end to the deadly operations. Nato officials say that between April and July there were around 2,832 special operations raids. The mission in which the US helicopter was shot down was one such operation.
Meanwhile the renewal of Drone-fired missile attacks into North Waziristan is part of the same US strategy of killing as many Taliban commanders as possible even as American officials accept that all Taliban groups could potentially be part of the peace process. Confusion abounds over what the US hopes to achieve by simultaneously wanting to target and talk to Taliban leaders. In this ‘kill-capture-or-reconcile’ strategy, the US expects Pakistan to assist by facilitating contacts and at the same time take action against Taliban leaders unwilling to ‘reconcile’. And this while the US itself continues to ramp up military actions against the Taliban.
This approach will produce more not less violence, and is hardly a promising setting for serious talks. The cycle of revenge killings by both sides will hinder not help the start of meaningful negotiations. That is why a change of course is essential especially as there are indications of Taliban interest in a negotiated settlement – reflected in recent statements posted on its website. Instead of pursuing the current fight-and-talk approach, Washington in fact had the opportunity to offer a Ramazan ceasefire to help prepare the ground for negotiations that it acknowledges is the only way to end its violent entanglement.
Such an offer, whether confined to selected areas or signalling an end to night raids, would have tested the Taliban’s interest in peace and given a sharp focus to the trilateral process. A halt in fighting during the holy month would have helped to ascertain who among the Taliban could be brought into the reconciliation process and which elements opposed talks. Instead violence this Ramazan has far surpassed that in the same month in previous years.
The US unwillingness so far to consider any interim confidence-building measures – suspending nighttime raids in return for the Taliban’s cessation of assassinations – may reflect the continuing lack of clarity in the Obama Administration about how to proceed in Afghanistan. Different parts of the administration seem to want different things. While the White House and the State Department appear to want the reconciliation process to accelerate and military strategy recalibrated to support that goal, it is not clear if the Pentagon and the CIA are fully on board. The US military still seems to balk at talks with the Taliban, regarding them as an admission of failure to win the war. Where the CIA stands on this is signalled by its continued use of Drones to hammer the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.
Whatever the internal dynamics in Washington, operational US strategy is still at odds with its declared objective of seeking a negotiated end to the war. A ‘pause’ in fighting – effected through a Ramazan truce or by one later – can open the diplomatic space and generate the momentum to speed up peace talks. Escalating special operation missions provide the Taliban an incentive to continue fighting and not abandon it in preference for talks.
The notion that more fighting will force the Taliban into negotiations means pursuing elusive battlefield gains without the assurance that the Taliban will respond to these methods. Bringing military pressure to bear in an effort to soften the adversary’s negotiating stance is a well-rehearsed tactic. But there comes a point when this runs it course and a pause in fighting is essential to pave the way for negotiations. That moment arrived when the Obama Administration declared months ago that it sought a political settlement and supported Afghan reconciliation.
The historical record of peace processes suggests that they start with some form of agreed stand down leading to a negotiated cease-fire. Pakistan has long advocated the need to advance the reconciliation process by peace building measures. It has stressed the importance of properly sequencing the steps necessary to secure a negotiated settlement. In recent exchanges with the US, top Pakistani military officials have said that the concept of ‘Afghan reconciliation’ needs to be turned into an operational plan. This means ensuring that the political strategy determines the military mission and steps taken in that regard advance a political settlement.
Pakistan has argued that a mutual reduction of violence will help to create the political conditions for dialogue. It has proposed a roadmap for an Afghan-led peace process that involves three phases and starts with a reciprocal de-escalation of violence to create the conditions for peace efforts. This is seen as setting the stage to persuade the Taliban to renounce Al-Qaeda – the most important strategic goal shared by the core group. Once this is achieved talks can make real progress. The third and final phase aimed at securing acceptance of the Afghanistan Constitution can follow later in a process in which the Afghan parties can discuss modifications to arrive at a new constitutional consensus.
It remains to be seen how the three parties in the core group are able to evolve agreement on translating the reconciliation objective into an implementable plan. What can give the early stage of this process a decisive impetus is if the US accepts mutual cessation of violence as a necessary starting point. A plausible and credible plan can then be crafted for a peace process that can over time deliver a negotiated settlement.