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Reconciliation in Afghanistan, Sure, But With Whom, Exactly?

Obama to The New York Times:

Mr. Obama said on the campaign trail last year that the possibility of breaking away some elements of the Taliban “should be explored,” an idea also considered by some military leaders. But now he has started a review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan intended to find a new strategy, and he signaled that reconciliation could emerge as an important initiative, mirroring the strategy used by Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq.

“If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Mr. Obama said.

What might this look like? At a meeting a little over a week ago at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington with reporters, Zalmay Rassoul, Hamid Karzai’s national security adviser, sketched out an approach to reconciliation when I asked him. “Our policy is those who are willing to stop fighting and drop their guns,” are “not al-Qaeda” and “accept our constitution” are potentially reconcilable,” he said.

Pressed by another reporter, Rassoul divided the insurgency ino three groups. “The hardcore leadership [with] very close links to al-Qaeda and other state actors” are “irreconcilable,” he said, and the Karzai government wouldn’t negotiate with them. That would mean the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar, and presumably the leaders of affiliated insurgent groups like Jalaleddin Haqqani or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Similarly, “the foot soldiers” were not people with whom to negotiate. “An economic alternative is the way forward for them,” Rassoul said. “These are people lured into terror… it’s our responsibility to lure them out.”

Negotiated reconciliation is the way forward for “the midlevel commanders,” he said. “Our purpose is to reconcile with them… Whether they give up violence up front now or late, it doesn’t matter… What matters is they renounce [violence] at some point.” Rassoul didn’t offer any particular guess on the size of this “midlevel” pool. But the day before, the Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, said that reconciliation was a realistic prospect for a “remarkable” proportion of the insurgency.

That’s the Afghan government’s perspective, anyway. It’s by no means clear the Obama administration will follow its lead. Throughout 2006 and 2007 in Iraq, truces between insurgents and U.S. commanders broke out throughout Sunni Iraq at the company to brigade level, all without the explicit approval of either Washington or Baghdad. It’s at least possible — I’m not saying it’s likely, just possible — that unit commanders in Afghanistan could pursue their own truces or alliances of convenience with particular insurgent groups as well.

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