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Sway Over Afghan Insurgents Proves Elusive
A Key to U.S. Strategy Falters As the Taliban Gains Strength

By Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

KABUL -- As Washington policymakers debate the U.S. role in Afghanistan, most agree that one element will be important to whatever strategy emerges: the need for reconciliation with insurgents who can be bought off or persuaded to lay down their weapons.

But those efforts have become increasingly difficult in recent weeks as the Taliban gains strength and as Afghans grow more and more anxious that the United States is not committed to their country for the long term.

"When the enemy has the momentum, it's highly unlikely you're going to get people willing to talk," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led the Obama administration's war policy review in the spring. "Why would you pick the loser?"

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has acknowledged the problem, writing in his war assessment that the perception "that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."

In addition, the Afghan government's own efforts at reconciliation have been tentative, incoherent and underfunded. The political limbo in the country, amid a disputed and unresolved presidential election, makes negotiation even more unlikely. And U.S. soldiers say they do not have sufficient latitude to strike deals with their adversaries.

An insurgent strike on a U.S. combat outpost in the Kamdesh area of eastern Afghanistan this month, which left eight American troops dead, underscores the difficulties of attempting to co-opt the enemy. The attack was attributed, at least in part, to the militant network of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which had been seen by some American policymakers as a ripe target for reconciliation efforts.

Hekmatyar has a decades-long history as a Machiavellian insurgent commander, a famously duplicitous leader who switched alliances when it favored him, was blamed for rocket attacks on the Afghan capital when he rose to become prime minister in the 1990s, and evolved from the CIA's favored recipient of weapons and money in the 1980s to a steadfast U.S. enemy.

A Soviet-Era Warlord

During the war against the Soviet Union, Hekmatyar earned a reputation as one of the most powerful Afghan warlords, overseeing a well-armed, loyal and disciplined fighting force from his base in northwest Pakistan. He also excelled at self-promotion and had a wide range of benefactors: At one time, he was being paid by Americans, Pakistanis, Iranians and Saudis simultaneously, said Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden division.

"What he wants is power, and he will play the game to get himself there. He cooperated when it suited him, even with enemies," Scheuer said.

Based on his history of changing sides, some consider Hekmatyar a candidate for negotiations to take his Hezb-e-Islami militia off the Afghan battlefield. Some U.S. officials view Hekmatyar's movement as an older and somewhat degraded insurgent organization losing ground to the younger and more radical Taliban.

"If you're going to be a hard guy and fight jihad, you're not going to do it for somebody who is going to turn," said a U.S. military official, speaking about Hekmatyar. "Right now he's losing control."

There are also signs that commanders in Hekmatyar's militia might be willing to cooperate with the Afghan government, even as they vow to attack U.S. soldiers. Senior American commanders in eastern Afghanistan have made attempts to reach out to Hekmatyar's commanders through letters. But they have been hindered by a lack of clear instructions on what they can offer militants willing to lay down their weapons and support the Afghan government.

This summer, U.S. military officials drafted a paper meant to clarify the rules on reconciliation. It placed the responsibility for such negotiations on the Afghan government. The U.S.-led military command "has no authority to negotiate with the insurgents independent" of the Afghan government, according to the six-page document obtained by The Washington Post. American commanders can, however, remove individuals from target lists and reward communities with aid projects, the draft paper read. A U.S. official said a rewrite of the document will give American commanders more latitude.

Lt. Col. Brad Brown, who oversees U.S. forces in the eastern province of Nurestan, began an effort last month to establish a relationship with the senior Hezb-e-Islami commander in the area. "We are in uncharted territory," Brown said at the time. "We are actively talking to people who were being targeted a few years ago by coalition forces."

The Hezb-e-Islami commander, Mullah Sadiq, refused to meet with American soldiers and may have participated in the deadly Oct. 3 siege of Combat Outpost Keating.

That day, as many as 150 fighters descended on the remote outpost, sparking a day-long battle. Under a torrent of gunfire and amid burning buildings, the insurgents breached the outpost -- situated in a river valley surrounded by steep hillsides -- before aircraft and reinforcements fought them back.

The next morning in Falls Church, John Petro, 71, learned that his grandson, Stephan L. Mace, 21, had been among the eight U.S. soldiers killed at the outpost. As a covert procurement officer for the CIA, Petro had been involved in sending weapons to the Afghan mujaheddin. Many of those weapons ended up with Hekmatyar.

"I knew it at the time, these guys are not our friends. We're giving them all these sophisticated weapons and the minute this is over, the minute they don't need us, they're running the show again," he said. "We're just wasting blood after blood over there."

Fighting Alongside the Taliban

A Hezb-e-Islami spokesman, interviewed in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, said the group's fighters took part in the attack alongside Taliban insurgents.

"We urge the U.S. to publicly announce its exit plan, and then we will fully cooperate with it in execution of the plan," said the spokesman, who called himself Haji Sahib. The Afghan government has made sporadic attempts at negotiation with insurgents but to little avail. The unresolved Aug. 20 election has frozen any serious attempt at reconciliation. President Hamid Karzai had campaigned on the need to convene a tribal gathering to negotiate with the Taliban, along with Hekmatyar and others, but some Afghan officials are doubtful this will happen.

An independent Afghan peace and reconciliation commission has persuaded about 9,000 people over the years to abandon the insurgency, said its vice president, Najibullah Mojadidi. But a lack of resources prevents the commission from offering fighters salaries, land, homes or jobs in exchange for disarmament, he said. The commission has spent less than $2 million since its founding in 2005.

"Unfortunately, this is the weakness," Mojadidi said. "We're still not in the position to give these people what they really need to start their new life."

One negotiation session last year with the Taliban, mediated by Saudi Arabia, failed because Taliban leader Mohammad Omar did not support the process and the "so-called representatives of the Taliban turned out to have no real authority," Riedel said.

"If you change the conditions on the battlefield, and the insurgency looks less like the future, then you may start to see these fractures and fissures exposing themselves," he said. "What the alliance needs to do now, working with the Afghans, is to develop the intelligence picture that is as in-depth as possible, that when you have someone who defects to you, you know who it is. We don't have that information at this point, by and large."

A former Hekmatyar commander, Wahidullah Sabawoon, said the U.S. troop increase this year has not improved American forces' bargaining position.

"The U.S. was able to capture a few districts in Helmand province, but the Taliban captured districts in northern Afghanistan, in Kunduz," he said. "Fighting is not the solution to the problem."

Jaffe reported from Washington.

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