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Recent news headlines have Afghan President Hamid Karzai declaring that of course he was talking with the Taliban, along with subsequent reports of Gen. David Petraeus agreeing with the strategy. The conservative press was outraged: How could Karzai take our aid dollars and then betray us, and how can America achieve victory if Karzai is talking with the enemy?
So with billions of dollars in aid to the Karzai government having not accomplished very much, the real issue is why haven't we been talking to the Taliban already?
Not too surprisingly, the Marines already have been, with some excellent results.
The war in Afghanistan is complicated. It's less about whether we should be talking with the enemy and more about determining who the enemy is. The term Taliban encompasses a variety of players, all of whom are fighting for a variety of reasons. But down in Marinestan, as the southern provinces of Helmand, Nimroz and Farah are casually known, the Marines have basically divided the Taliban into two groups:
1. "Big T" Taliban, or those who are religiously, patriotically or otherwise implacably opposed to the U.S. and NATO. That's a fight we need to win. Both sides know it, and that's why the fighting in-and-around Marjah is so intense. Marjah is the last remaining Taliban-influenced town in Helmand Province, and the repercussions of again being defeated by the Marines carry enormous stakes.
2. "Small T" Taliban, or those who are fighting more for money than from dedication. These fighters can be wooed with jobs, schools, doctors — the basic services a competent government provides its citizens.
It's the Small T with whom the Marines have been developing dialogues since Fall 2009, and the success or failure in wooing the Small T will help decide the success or failure of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The Big T comprises four main groups:
1. Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura operating from Quetta, Pakistan and fighting in the southern provinces.
2. The Haqqani Network and 3. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's groups operating from the eastern Afghan-Pak border along the Kunar and Paktia Provinces.
4. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Hakimullah Mehsud, operating from Pakistan's Northwest Territories.
These groups combine Tony Soprano thuggery, drug-smuggling and extortion, with the anti-west fervor of Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden. They are as interested in carving out fiefdoms for their own profit as driving out the infidels. They're the ones financing the Small T fighters, as well as attracting those many disenfranchised Pakistani's fighting in Afghanistan. They need to be sent to Muslim heaven, and the Marines are happy to assist.
Which leaves the Small T. They are the unemployed or underemployed earning $2 or $3 a day, whose children are uneducated, whose wives and daughters rarely see a doctor. They are being shaken down for bribes by Karzai officials or the Afghan National Police. They make up a large percentage of the Afghan population and crave the stability and order the Taliban brings — until the Taliban overreaches (again) with their version of fundamentalist Islam.
Do they want to fight against the U.S. and NATO? Not particularly, but when Big T representatives turn up in the village offering a monthly cash salary of $250 or $300 (or a potential beheading as an object lesson), then that unemployed farmer has no good reason to turn them away. All he wants to do is feed and care for his family. "It's the economy, stupid" is as true in Afghanistan as in the United States, which is why "Build & Transition" is equally important as "Clear & Hold."
So the Marines work hard reaching out to these small Talib units, building a dialogue and cautious trust via cell phone. It works, as I saw on my last two embeds, as the Marine units with whom I was embedded would receive calls saying, "Don't call it surrender, but if we come in... are there jobs for us?" Several hundred Small T fighters have come in and been peacefully reintegrated into Afghan village society — a far more effective and long-term method of success than combat operations.
Should be we be talking to the Taliban? By all means, yes. For when the "Small T" Taliban comes in to jobs and schooling, then the "Big T" Taliban will see it is losing popular support and need to re-think its strategy — unless they want to test the limits of their fundamentalism and do some real fighting themselves.
Embedded journalist, author, and father of a Marine
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