Posted by: Christian | December 13, 2009

McChrystal’s Weak Comments on the Weakening of the Taliban

We’ve heard something like this before: The Taliban is weakening and “prominent” members/commanders are making overtures to the government and would like to leave the insurgency. And so we hear it once again – this time about Taliban “rank-and-file” members lower down the ladder – from General McChrystal on CNN:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Taliban leaders who operate from safe havens remain confident and optimistic. But recent operations by U.S. and allied troops have pushed back the Taliban “in a number of areas” and caused “a tremendous amount of angst” in the Islamic militia’s ranks, he said.

“Their fighters are tired. We see a number that have already made extensive overtures to reintegrate back into the government,” McChrystal said. “So I think we’ve got an insurgency that is sitting safely in what they consider are safe havens. They are trying to exhort their forces who are closer to the fight, but the forces are having a tremendous problem right now and tremendous weakening.”

Well, I would be quite happy if I thought this was actually happening on a broad scale. My skepticism comes not just from the fact that McChrystal is doing his best PAO cheerleader impression, but that the previous meme on negotiations, reconciliation and integration of Taliban commanders and fighters into the government turned out to be quite the fantasy. As one of many examples, Aziz Hakimi, in a CMI report (PDF), wrote this:

The [National Reconciliation] commission was set up with international donor money, mainly Dutch, UK and US to persuade mid-level Taliban commanders and their followers to give up violence and live peacefully in government-controlled areas. The Commission used nationalistic and religious appeals plus limited financial incentives. The ex-fighters, it should be noted, were not being brought over for peace talks or sharing of power. They were simply asked to renounce violence and re-integrate into civilian life. PTS reports say close to 6,000 insurgents have opted to give up violence. These figures are disputed by government officials as well as international actors with knowledge of the process. Many of the reconciled Taliban are said to have been, in fact, noncombatants, inactive Taliban or simply refugees returning home. Most of them are said to have been driven by financial considerations, however small.

This came up in several other places. It was clear that no strong insurgent commanders had come across to “the light.”

McChrystal is not along in his views. For example, Hasan Khan in Foreign Policy wrote in regards to the higher-ups in the insurgency:

But according to intelligence sources in the Pakistani government, some members of the high level leadership of the Afghan Taliban are indeed interested in talks with the U.S. and its Afghan allies. They want to end the insurgency as soon as possible because simply put, they are tired. “It is too hard for them to fight for decades,” said my source.

Khan then specifically names Mullah Baradar as a prominent advocate of negotiating. But Khan then goes on to note this in regards to US efforts:

According to the liberal Arabic-language Saudi newspaper Al Watan, U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry has approached Mullah Wakil Muttawakil, a former foreign minister of the Taliban, for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The U.S. is also reportedly in touch with four other former Taliban commanders: Abdul Hakim Mujahid, Arsala Rehmani, Pir Mohammad Rohani, and Wakil Ahmad Akhundzada.

The problem with this approach is that none of these individuals has any contact with Mullah Omar, so working through them may lead to nothing but dead ends for the U.S. and its Afghan allies.

Khan then goes on to argue that the US should get in touch with insurgents that actually have real power.

Are we to believe that the insurgency is tired? Are we to believe that members want to defect? Perhaps it’s just that I am a little too skeptical. But really, an insurgent force that has been progressively gaining in strength (across many different metrics) and with an enemy that will start a draw-down in 18 months suddenly is deciding that it has had enough?I just see their confidence rising.

Too be honest, I would never rule out the Taliban leadership actually negotiating as they do have a history of doing so. However, they also have a history of reneging and deceiving. For them, negotiating is not a sign of weakness. It is just another tool to defeat you. And it is quite plain to see that those who have left the insurgency were never really in it in the first place. Taliban ranks weakening? Taliban leadership wants to seriously negotiate? No. Basically, I’m not buying what Khan and McChrystal are selling.

Update: A few hours after writing this I read Griff Witte’s WaPo article on the matter. Highly relevant.


  1. There’s angst in the Taliban ranks? Then we just need to take away their Bright Eyes albums and we’ll win the war!

  2. I think you call it right, I doubt even McChrystal buys this hogwash that he’s peddling. PTS has been a joke because the promises to the reconciled fighters were never kept. Possibly many of them were marginal to the insurgency, but if they had gotten a fair deal that might have influenced some others to join the process.

    As it is, despite there being genuine pressure on insurgents in some areas, and there being genuine feelers from some commanders (low to mid level in my area) to the PTS, it will come to naught since it’s en empty shell of a reconciliation program.


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