"Flipping the Taliban" is the new recipe for success in Afghanistan. In the July/August 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Fotini Christia, a member of the Security Studies Program at MIT, and Michael Semple, an Irish official with the EU delegation who was expelled from Afghanistan last December for his involvement in a Taliban reconciliation effort, put forward their "flipping" the enemy thesis that makes the exercise a tad harder than flipping hamburgers.
Western logic is not a good guide when assessing the psychological profile of men who curse the birth of a girl and exalt a baby boy, born with a Kalashnikov in his cradle. The current generation of Afghan men and their sons has fought almost non-stop for the past 30 years. While in power (1996-2001), Taliban clerics ordered women stoned to death for being seen out of their ambulatory burqa tents with non-family men and banned education for all females. Result: Only 3 percent of them can read and write.
The Christia-Semple duo remind us that Taliban leader and al-Qaida ally Mullah Omar, still eluding capture after eight years on the lam, recently offered, ironically, to give safe passage to NATO forces that choose to leave the country, just as the mujahedin offered safe passage to Soviet troops when they decamped and went home two decades ago. But the authors fail to point out this is precisely the reason why Taliban "reconcilables," as perceived by European interlocutors, will remain irreconcilable. All Afghans, uneducated as most of them are, have one incontrovertible historical fact engraved in their DNA: They have defeated every empire that occupied Afghan land, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes to the Persian Empire, India's Mughal Empire, to the British, Russian and American empires. On Jan. 13, 1842, a British army doctor reached a British sentry post at Jalalabad, the sole survivor of a 16,000-strong Anglo-Indian expeditionary force, allowed to escape to tell the world the story of a massacre strewn along the 95-mile road from Kabul. During the decadelong Soviet occupation of the 1980s, 14,500 Soviet troops were killed and 54,000 seriously wounded.
So cajoling a few Taliban "reconcilable" foot soldiers to abandon the fight and rally to NATO's side will not flip anything. The Vietnam War is long since forgotten and its lessons ignored by virtue of not being remembered. And before that France's eight-year war in Algeria. And before that France's eight-year war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In each one of these conflicts, the illusion was nurtured about splitting hard-as-nails insurgent fronts in the vain hope of getting the "reconcilables," or turncoats, to carry the white man's burden. Guerrilla movements frequently fostered the illusion of fissures to split the ranks of their enemies.
Over the years, the authors argue, Afghan Taliban commanders often switched sides mid-conflict. That was true as the Taliban (student movement), sponsored by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, set out to end a post-Soviet-exit civil war and establish its rule over the whole country. Loyalties caromed from tribe to ethnic group as ISI's nationwide campaign gathered steam and lined up behind the Taliban. The defections were to the Taliban with 80 percent of the territory -- or to the rival, non-Pashtu Northern Alliance that held its ground and sided with U.S.-led invaders in October 2001.
Flipping Taliban is a "fantasy," said Anthony Cordesman, one of America's leading strategic thinkers, after spending a month in Afghanistan as a member of an official Strategic Advisory Group. A senior scholar and strategy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Cordesman said this week that Afghanistan is "a disorganized mess. The impact of years of inadequate resources, stovepipes rather than unity of effort, a lack of realistic goals and measures of effectiveness, a focus on post-conflict reconstruction in mid-war, and a failure to come to grips with the limits and corruption of the Afghan government, have taken their toll.
"What should be an integrated civil-military effort on winning the war in the field," said Cordesman in his report," is a dysfunctional, wasteful mess focused in Kabul and crippled by bureaucratic divisions, Afghan power brokering, national caveats (against offensive operations) and tensions, and a critical lack of resources at every level."
The Christia-Semple thesis says that "for many Taliban fighters, insurgency has nothing to do with Islamic zealotry; it is a way of life." Reconciliation efforts, as the authors see it, will have to zero in on the particular characteristics of each group: its tribal links, its traditions, the special conditions under which it functions. Good luck. In light of what Tony Cordesman saw and heard, that would mean at least three more stovepipes parceled out among 40 different nationalities.
Afghanistan, like Vietnam during the eight-year war fought by the French, followed by the 10-year war fought by the United States, is friend by day and enemy by night with no end in sight. U.S. soldiers, going up and down mountains lugging 60 to 80 pounds, are easy pickings for concealed guerrillas. So the Christia-Semple formula may well serve as a fig leaf for withdrawal short of "Mission Accomplished."