The Taliban Are Still Here to Stay

The Daily Beast |

By Melissa Payson and Parag Khanna

Don’t be fooled into thinking the tide is turning with the Marja offensive. Parag Khanna and Melissa Payson on the years of political jawboning to come.

The coalition siege of Marja, as well as the capture of the Taliban’s top commander and recent Pakistani military incursions into South Waziristan, give the impression of a turning tide in the battle against the Taliban and victory around the corner. But neither the battlefield optics of “clearing and holding” terrain in Afghanistan’s countryside and villages nor the Obama administration’s silent decision to drop usage of the term “Af-Pak” can trump the region’s harsh realities. The only real solution to both nations’ existential crises is to engage directly in politics that are local, tribal, and perpetual. With the clock ticking rapidly for NATO to deliver stability in South Asia, success will depend on a paradigm shift in the West’s ability to grasp and act upon this.

First, the local. Both NATO forces and the Afghan government are meant to follow the current Marja battles with a governance strategy of winning over Taliban commanders and fighters and engaging villages in economic reconstruction projects. It’s too soon to tell whether this will even be possible given how much hinges on whether Afghan National Army forces can continue to hold territory after American and NATO troop withdrawals. And according to a recent investigative piece by Ron Moreau of Newsweek, the current operations, with the civilian death toll mounting, are more likely to harden resistance to both foreign occupation and the Afghan government than pave the way for local stability.

On the Pakistan side, a key ingredient of the Kerry-Lugar plan is the disbursal of $1.5 billion per year in non-military aid, making Pakistan the third-largest recipient of U.S. assistance in the world. But pouring more money into corrupt or defunct ministries won’t change Pakistan’s ground reality, where those dollars are needed most. And more American diplomats and contractors largely confined to an ever-expanding embassy compound or over-reliance on Western-garbed civil society actors hailing from urban centers won’t rein in Pakistan’s patronage system either. Indeed, such disconnected approaches risk a return to the unaccountable largesse of the 1980s, rather than prompting an innovative strategy to modernize Pakistan.

Instead, the U.S. and other major donors like the U.K. and European Union will have to forge ties with those dwelling outside their conventional reach. There is no excuse for missing this opportunity: From private schools teaching children computer skills to charitable health clinics to the Persian Gulf diaspora remitting money to their relatives, Pakistan’s indigenous civil society is in fact diverse, vibrant, and widespread. A close embrace of its members at the most local of levels must be a visible part of any partnership.

Engaging directly with the tribal population must be the second pillar in any partnership. In Afghanistan, the U.S.-supported Karzai regime has agreed to open a new political dialogue with Taliban elements aimed at determining a more formal role for their involvement in the country’s governance. In Marja, coalition leaders have already been meeting with tribal shura councils to assure them of the West’s commitment to tribal development. While varying from province to province, this initiative has to go forward at all costs in order to defuse the intractable hostility and stalemate between Western forces and the Taliban—an essential step if the Afghan National Army is ever to become a robust force and for NATO to ever leave the country.

Any effective strategy must acknowledge and integrate the permanent staying power and territorial legitimacy of the Pashtuns. Bureaucratic org-charts—even the nation-state system itself—can’t erase the nuances of tribal and clan relations that characterize the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan. So too with Balochistan and the Balochs in Pakistan’s southwest. The olden system of influential tribal elders, though battered in the Pashtun areas, has withstood the Taliban’s violent campaign to destroy and replace it with militant Islamic rule. No matter how tumultuous and intermittently brutal the situation, kinship networks and their leaders retain persuasive influence.

Regrettably, most officials and analysts fail to grasp that the Pashtun region is a potentially fruitful theater for dialogue and engagement. Its tribes have not only been fierce fighters for centuries, but also expert negotiators; they violently punish those who break promises, but honor agreements and loyalty as well. If the Obama strategy emphasizes “people-to-people ties,” these are the people who are crucial to enlist in both the short and long term. The tribal order can’t be defeated by fighting against it, but it can be gradually and incrementally modernized through thoughtful engagement. Many tribal leaders have appealed responsibly for just such an approach, including influential opinion-shapers in isolated North Waziristan. To turn away from this opportunity would be tragic.

Finally, we have to come to terms with the perpetual nature of negotiations with local and tribal populations. A longer time horizon can save us from repeating the mistakes of the past, such as focusing solely on military solutions and attempting to buy off capital elites. To avoid Afghanistan becoming another Vietnam, these will have to continue long after Obama has brought the troops home.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and author of the international bestseller The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century (Random House). He is a host of InnerView on MTV. Melissa Payson has been designing, executing, and evaluating development programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2003.

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