The United States is planning to focus more on promoting reconciliation between the Afghan government and relatively moderate Taliban elements, Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said on January 7.
Holbrooke leads a small team of officials from a variety of US government agencies that is responsible for shaping non-military policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, he said his office now sees the reconciliation process as "high on our personal priority list." Up to 70 percent of Taliban fighters hold no allegiance to al Qaeda, or even the Taliban "supreme leadership," but fight instead for nationalist reasons, Holbrooke estimated.
Over the past year, the Taliban insurgency has gained traction in Afghanistan. Areas that were once quiet, such as northern Kunduz Province, have seen substantial fighting in recent weeks. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Enticing non-ideological militants to quit the fight could help US forces turn the tide of the Afghan insurgency against the Taliban.
"They fight for various reasons; they are misled about our presence there. They have a sense of injustice or personal grievances. Or they fight because it's part of the Afghan tradition that you fight outsiders and they have the [International Security Assistance Force]/NATO/U.S. presence conflated with earlier historical events, some of which are not too far in the past," Holbrooke said, referring to non-ideological combatants.
The United States did not focus on winning over non-ideological militants to the government's side during the first year of Holbrooke's tenure largely because last year's presidential election diverted his team's attention. It will become a priority in 2010, however. "It's absolutely imperative that we deal with this issue. If we don't deal with it, success will elude us." Holbrooke said.
Holbrooke also said President Barack Obama's statements on US strategy in Afghanistan, in particular the mid-2011 date for troop withdrawal, are being widely misinterpreted. That date instead will mark the time when the US begins its handover to Afghan security forces. "It's not a withdrawal, but the start of a responsible transition in which American combat troops will begin to draw down," he said, adding that another review in December will look at that issue again.
Holbrooke highlighted the roles of several post-Soviet states in Afghanistan. He lavishly praised Georgia, which in March will deploy an additional battalion to the international force in Afghanistan, bringing its total contingent up to 950 troops. That will make Georgia the largest per capita contributor of troops, even larger than that of the United States, he said.
"I should acknowledge that, and I should acknowledge President [Mikheil] Saakashvili's personal role in that, and all of the Georgian people," he said. "They've made this commitment without any request for anything in return, there are no quid pro quos here. They wanted to help, they saw the regional connections."
Holbrooke also said that either he or a deputy will be visiting Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the coming weeks. Central Asia has become a key transit hub for supplies traveling on the Northern Distribution Network bound for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.