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Will ‘Target and Talk’ Approach Work With the Taliban?

October 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Obama administration is ramping up an Afghan war strategy that combines attacks on the Taliban while assisting peace talks. Will it work? Margaret Warner gets two views.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on this, we go to retired Colonel David Lamm, former chief of staff to the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005. He’s now a professor at National Defense University. And James Dobbins, former special envoy to Afghanistan in 2001, and he’s now at the RAND Corporation.

Welcome to you both. Colonel Lamm, is this a conscious strategy, to target Taliban leadership at the same time you are making it easier for them to go to talks?

COL. DAVID LAMM (RET.), U.S. Army: It is. And to bring them to talk, they have to be compelled to do so. And the only way you’re going to compel them to come in is — is by force. We — there are four red lines. They need to, number one, renounce violence, two, lay down their arms, three, renounce al-Qaida, and then abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: But what is the thinking behind this? I mean, are you targeting the very guys you want to come talk? Couldn’t that be counterproductive?

COL. DAVID LAMM: No, because, in simple terms, they have to be compelled to come talk. On the battlefield right now, without the military pressure, they would sense that they were winning.

Somebody who is sensing they are winning has no impetus at all to come and talk and bargain away anything. So, force is one way to compel them to get to the table.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains this approach, in your view?

JAMES DOBBINS, former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan: Well, I think we would probably be targeting the Taliban leadership even if we weren’t prepared to talk to them. I think that says more about the availability of the targets and the drones.

But I do think that it can contribute to the possibility of a negotiation and a negotiated outcome. I think the administration’s interest in — in pursuing that possibility comes from President Karzai’s desire to do so, the government of Pakistan’s new desire to try to help mediate a settlement, pressure from our allies — the British have been pushing this point for a long time — and a view that the military situation in Afghanistan is not going to get a lot better, so that, if there is a point at which you have an equilibrium, in which both sides feel there’s a stalemate and neither side can win, you are as close to it as you are likely to get.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you’re trying to — they’re trying to make — or NATO forces are trying to make these Taliban — this Taliban leadership feel under threat? Is that the idea…

COL. DAVID LAMM: Precisely.

MARGARET WARNER: … that, if they don’t come talk, they might lose their lives?

COL. DAVID LAMM: Exactly. Precisely. And the targeting is fairly sophisticated. They will look at top leadership, some mid-level leadership, probably leave the low fence-sitters alone, what we would call folks who are on a traditional kind of white list that were just Taliban because it was the thing to do in the neighborhood at the time. But the key leadership is specifically targeted.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, are these leaders that are being targeted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or both?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, both, but, largely, what they’re talking about are in Afghanistan, I believe.

And the leaders that are being targeted are not actually the ones that we will ultimately negotiate with. They are the intermediate leadership. But the intermediate leadership is clearly critical. And to the extent they are being steadily eliminated, it is putting pressure on the system as a whole.

MARGARET WARNER: But that does raise the point. I mean, the ultimate Taliban leadership, Colonel Lamm, is believed to be in Pakistan, Mullah Omar and his top lieutenants. So, what is the connection between taking out their commanders in Afghanistan and them?

COL. DAVID LAMM: Well, you take away their operational arm and their ability to affect anything inside Afghanistan by going after these — the mid-level folks.

At the same time, there is pressure in Afghanistan. I mean, there is continual pressure with the drones. I know they have moved further north into Waziristan.

MARGARET WARNER: You are talking about in Pakistan.

COL. DAVID LAMM: In Pakistan and North Waziristan inside Pakistan. In fact, the last drone attack in Kurram authority area killed some Pakistani officers and precipitated some close-downs. So, there’s some give-and-take back and forth, good and bad, with the drone attacks.

But the pressure just in sanctuaries and for the operational arm on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, initially, the Obama administration was fairly cool to this idea of high-level talks. I mean, they were fine about reintegrating the low-level guys.

JAMES DOBBINS: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: What has turned that around? And to what degree is the deadline that President Obama set of July 2011 for at least U.S. forces to begin drawing down in some fashion driving that?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think President Obama’s statement that he will begin drawing down in 2011 has caused everybody who is concerned to begin thinking about the end game and positioning themselves for something beyond the war.

That certainly applies to Karzai, who has embraced this. And a large amount of Afghan society has embraced it, although it is still controversy. Our allies, the Pakistanis, have come forward. And there is a new interest on the part of the Taliban. Everybody, I think, tends toward the view that General Petraeus repeatedly says. That is, this is the only way it’s going to end. It’s going to take a long time to end it, so we might as well get started.

MARGARET WARNER: Has this gotten — this gotten started, though, earlier than it might have, Colonel Lamm, if it weren’t for this July 2011 deadline?

COL. DAVID LAMM: I think the deadline is an impetus to get things moving. The downside of the 2011 deadline is that, while it may be forcing some people to come and to talk and to get serious about what an endgame is, the problem with a 2011 deadline is, is that they may also be planning an endgame that is not in the interests of NATO or the regional actors, i.e., a re-beginning of a great game, where they use Afghanistan as strategic depth for India and Pakistan and a proxy war in Iran and so on and so forth. So…

MARGARET WARNER: Well, and, also, why wouldn’t the Taliban leadership just hunker down?

COL. DAVID LAMM: Well, with the July 20 — the July deadline, they, in fact — a strategy would be just — just — just to hunker down, maintain the status quo, and then wait the alliance out.

MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line, what do you think are the prospects for success on this, on this particular two-pronged strategy?

JAMES DOBBINS: I mean, I think that if you — if you look at the history of, you know, the ends of civil wars, you are likely to take a long time to get into negotiations. It will take a year of talks about negotiations until you are in negotiations. It will then take several years for the negotiation to reach a conclusion.

During that time, violence is likely to increase, as the sides maneuver for advantage. And the side that emerges best is going to be the side that demonstrates the greatest tenacity.

MARGARET WARNER: And brief final thought from you on the prospects for success?

COL. DAVID LAMM: Well, I tend to concur with Ambassador Dobbins, and that is, as this thing winds down, that, generally, in these sorts of situations with these insurgencies, you are talking 10, 15, 20 years before you decide finally — one side finally wins, and then you get to real reconciliation.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you both, David Lamm, James Dobbins.