Thomas H. Johnson is a Research Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Director of the Program for Culture & Conflict Studies. M. Chris Mason is a retired Foreign Service Officer with long experience in South Asia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, DC and they have a lot to say about the supposed peace talks between the US, the Afghan Government and the Taliban, that they believe is destined to failure.
Afghanistan policy, like Vietnam policy before it,has taken on a life of its own, impervious to ground truth. The simple reality is that "peace talks" with the Taliban have no chance whatever of a positive outcome from the perspective of U.S. policy. Just as it did in Vietnam, the United States has been fighting the wrong war in Afghanistan with the wrong strategy from the very beginning.Rooted in the mistaken belief about how to fight the war in Vietnam, Johnson and Mason argue that the US Military, and by extension their civilian commanders, have learned nothing from past experiences. We can see that the lessons of Vietnam have been tossed aside, and every failed policy of that war has been introduced in this war: Vietnamization has been transplanted by Afghanistanization, counter-insurgency against communism has been replaced with counter-insurgency against jihadism, and extensive and restrictive rules of engagement to protect public opinion have been replaced with extensive and restrictive rules of engagement to protect public opinion.
In Vietnam, the United States was ideologically hell-bent on fighting a war against communism, and shaped its strategy accordingly. For nearly a decade in Afghanistan, the United States has insisted on fighting a secular war, a counterinsurgency, against a religious movement. However, our enemy in North Vietnam was not fighting a war for communism, and in Afghanistan our enemies are not fighting an insurgency. They are fighting a jihad, and no South Asian jihad in history has ever ended in a negotiated settlement. And this one will not either. There is no overlap between the way insurgencies and charismatic religious movements of this archetype in the Pashtun belt end. Insurgencies by definition have both political and military arms. Regardless of what they have learned to say, the Taliban does not. One hundred percent of the movement's leaders are Muslim clerics. After fighting a second war in Asia the wrong way for almost a decade, the United States is now again desperately seeking a way out of the quagmire from within the wrong set of potential outcomes.
The primary reasons why "peace talks" are delusional are three fold: First, there is no"Taliban" in the sense the proponents of talks envision it. To believe so is cultural mirroring at its peak. Second,the enemy is interested in pre-withdrawal concessions, not a settlement, in an alien culture in which seeking negotiations to end a war is surrender. To believe otherwise is simply wishful thinking. And third, no understanding with senior clerics in the Taliban movement has ever outlived the airplane flight back to New York. Like a second marriage, trusting the "Taliban" to keep a bargain is a victory of hope over experience.
Vietnamization a policy instituted by Richard Nixon and escalated by Lyndon Johnson was intended to allow US Forces to leave Vietnam after building up the capabilities of the South Vietnamese troops and government. In its most simplistic of definitions Vietnamization had two primary components: Pacification and Militarization. The second part was achievable, in that US Forces would build up and support the South Vietnamese forces in terms of equipment, training and combat skills. The first part was a total failure, in that the goal was to pacify areas of the country by instituting government action in areas of the country where government should have already been in place. Bringing the tribal areas into a central government system proved to be too big of a challenge for the US primarily because Saigon was unable as well as unwilling to resolve the political issues of moving the tribal areas into the central government.
In Afghanistan we can see the same policies being instituted once again, in the form of a building up of equipment and training of Afghan forces by US and Coalition Forces in conjunction with a policy of Pacification, where the new Central Government of Afghanistan is supposed to politically be benevolently active in the country. Unfortunately the new central government is either unable to or unwilling or both unwilling and unable to upset the status quo in the countryside. As a result US Military actions have been pulled back to take control of the cities (what few there are, in a country the size of Texas) thereby leaving the country side and villages to the Taliban and other anti-government forces.
By all accounts Afghanistanization has been a total failure. No Afghan military unit can operate independent of US or Coalition support, and no Afghan unit is able to handle even the most basics of logistical needs. Furthermore, the US has taken and refused to hold the ground it has taken relinquishing it to the enemy on an almost daily basis, which results in a see-saw effect of taking and relinquishing the same territory over and over again.
Secondly the Rules of Engagement (ROE) as we saw in Vietnam have been resurrected in Afghanistan. Borders represent safe havens for enemy forces, where US and Coalition Forces can not pursue them resulting in highly volatile regions along the borders where enemy forces cross the border and attack a weak point and then retreat across the border to safety. This results in a blurring of who is and is not the enemy, and questions the role that neighboring countries have in their support for or against the enemy or even US and Coalition Forces.
Even more so than creating safe-havens for the enemy the ROE, instituted to protect public opinion both in the US and in Afghanistan have resulted in situations where US and Coalition Forces have been effectively turned into targets, by the civilian leadership, and resulted in not a growing support for the war, but rather a general disdain for the war. Designed to help protect against so called collateral damage the ROE have made it almost impossible to conduct war in any other manner than via the so called surgical strike, but at what cost?
With every JDAM or laser guided smart bomb dropped on a single target, sometimes just a single insurgent, and the public – at home and abroad - questions the legality of using such force. Invariably because of the length of time taken to even receive permission to engage the target the target is no longer the only person in the area and the rules set in place to reduce collateral damage have in effect only created the potential for more collateral damage. That is assuming of course that ground forces are even allowed to engage the enemy that is desperately trying to kill them.
The end result is a war in which there are no victories, no winners, only victims. US and Coalition forces are offered up as slaughter on one day and then turned into criminals the next, all to protect the “psyches” of the public at home and in the battle zone.
And finally, we have to discuss the policy of counter-insurgency. In Vietnam the goal was to contain the spread of communism but as Johnson and Mason allude to in their essay, the North Vietnamese were not fighting to become Communists, they were fighting to become a country, and the communists were the group that backed and financed their war. The spread of communism was a side-effect of their war against the South and the advent of the Khmer Rouge after the fall of the South is proof that the North was not entirely intent upon becoming Communists as the Khmer Rouge killed millions in both areas of the country after coming to power.
In Afghanistan the US has once again opted for a policy of counter-insurgency this time against a religious movement. However as noted by Johnson and Mason the Taliban aren’t fighting for a country, they are fighting for a religion.
I have been using Taliban as a singular name for a complex group, Johnson and Mason further note that the “Taliban” is comprised of similar military-religious orders, including, to name a few, the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, the Tora Bora Front, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Lashkar-i-Taiba,Hisb-i-Islami Khalis, and Hisb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. These groups share “a common purpose and acknowledge the religious supremacy of Mullah Muhammad Omar,the Amir-ul-Mumaneen, or ‘Leader of the Faithful,’ in Quetta” but they do not have a single political wing that represents them.
The local tribal chiefs would greatly appreciate if the US and Coalition forces pumped millions and millions of dollars into building up the infrastructure of their villages, and the US and Coalition forces are doing just that, but the tribal chief’s aren’t going to become a part of a secular government, when religion rules their entire life. The US cannot continue to fight a secular war for the hearts and minds of the populace when the populace is part and parcel of the religion for which the war is being prosecuted by the Taliban.
For the Taliban the war in Afghanistan is a religious war, it is being undertaken to spread their particular brand of Islam and the US will never win a war against religion, but using purely secular means, because each “wing” of the Taliban has a different set of local goals, and issues and power struggles within their local area, the only unifying goal of them all is the spread of their distinct brand of Islam, and that is a battle that the US cannot or is unwilling to control.