The prospect of America holding peace talks with what the Afghan people see as Taliban butchers presents a strange cocktail of foreign policy that looks to end America’s longest war. The following article is part of a four-part series featuring conversations with military veterans who served in Afghanistan to explore what went wrong and what comes next.
In Part Two of our series, Clarion’s national correspondent Shireen Qudosi speaks with retired Army Major Jason Criss Howk, who served with the Department of Defense as a South Asian foreign area officer and has worked on Afghanistan since 2002. Howk now works as an an instructor, public speaker, podcast host and author who focuses on Islam and the Middle East.
The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Clarion: You worked for the United States government in Afghanistan beginning in 2002 at tactical, operational, and policy levels. We now have increased insurgent attacks from the Taliban, while at the same time we have some folks seeing the Taliban as freedom fighters against Western colonizers. Can you help us understand how to make sense of the Taliban as America enters peace talks with a group we’ve been fighting for nearly 20 years.
Howk: The Taliban and other insurgent, criminal, and terrorist forces are ready to fight at the tactical level and are hoping for many tactical successes to help them with their strategic narrative that they are a powerful “liberation force” as they see the world pressing them to enter peace talks.
It’s important to remember that the Taliban is not a liberation force ridding the Afghan people of oppressive foreign forces. They are an oppressive anti-Islamic organization of butchers that are murdering innocent Afghans.
This is information warfare for them, they want people to think of them as holy warriors. We should not aid them in reaching that goal. With every murder of innocent Muslim Afghan women and children they are defining themselves as anti-Afghan and anti-Muslim. The narrative has shifted due to their butchery. The Afghan people now fully understand that the Afghans fighting to make Afghanistan peaceful and secure are in the Afghan military and police forces. The examples of bravery, selfless service, and honor being displayed by the Afghan security forces are seen daily by the Afghan people. Afghans have buried and honored brothers, uncles, husbands, children and sisters for 17 years that have fought wearing the Afghan flag. The Afghan people know that the Taliban, and murderers like them, are on the wrong side of history. Taliban are not “mujahideen” or freedom fighters, just brutal oppressive thugs—Afghans know this.
Clarion: Reports show the Taliban claim indirect talks are already underway with the U.S. with locations including Afghanistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Informal U.S. talks with the Taliban are a very odd scenario: friendly meetings with tea and cookies served amid extremely tight security and meeting protocols. Amidst this unfolding delicate courtship between the Taliban and America, we’re also learning that the Taliban are open to keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What’s the likelihood of success here with any future, formal peace talks?
Howk: The Taliban will eventually need to enter peace talks if they plan on re-entering Afghan society.They know that; even if they don’t want to admit it. Peace talks will be held with the Afghan government, but the peace talks will actually need to be approved by the Afghan people.
Right now they are trying to increase their prestige by trying to talk to any country that will hear them in an official capacity. Their prestige that has taken a hit over the last few years due to their brutality. Because right now so many Afghan people would rather see the Taliban dead than back in Afghan society; they must try to increase their diplomatic prestige before relenting and talking to the Afghan government as an insurgency group speaking to a duly elected government.
I can’t stress enough that in the end of almost every reconciliation/peace talk comes a long process where the brutalized victims try to forgive the oppressive murderers. The Taliban are being poorly advised if they don’t think they will have to make amends with the Afghan people. The Government might let them rejoin society one day, but it’s up to the people to really allow it.
Every attack on innocents by the Taliban proves to the Afghan people that they are anti-Islamic and have left the straight path of Islam–that they can’t be trusted to rejoin society. If the Taliban doesn’t change their ways, they will eventually be stuck living in exile in Pakistan or elsewhere while being exploited to fight an endless war they can’t win. They will never be Afghans again. The Taliban fighters that started this insurgency war are now starting to bury many of their own sons that they talked into fighting the Afghan government. I’m guessing they are reassessing some life decisions.
President Ghani has taken the initiative on the Peace Process from the Taliban and that leaves the Taliban looking poorly every time they don’t accept an olive branch. The diplomatic community globally should be helping Ghani to maintain that leverage. Especially nations like America, Qatar, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. Somehow, force the Taliban to talk to Ghani, sooner rather than later. There are now community-led Afghan peace marches and demonstrations occurring throughout the country. Afghans are tired of war and want peace. The Taliban should talk while they still have some leverage.
Clarion: I’m glad you brought up the Afghan people. When we discuss Afghanistan, the voices that are often the least heard are those of the Afghan people. From your experience, how do Afghans feel about the Taliban?
Howk: The Taliban are hated by the Afghan people, even more than the Afghans hated [former President] Najibullah’s Communist Army of the 1980s and early 1990s. Every cowardly attack on innocent Afghan children, women, and men by Taliban butchers means 1,000 more true Afghans will resist the Taliban insurgency with all their strength. This is the reverse of the “mujahideen era” when the Afghans were supporting the Pakistan-based insurgency against the government.
Clarion: How do we get ahead of the increased insurgent attacks in Afghanistan from the Taliban, ISIS and al-Qaeda? How do we make it safer for Afghans to be present and participatory in their society?
Currently, the Taliban threatens 70% of Afghanistan. They control 14 districts and move openly in 66% of other districts, with Afghans fearing for their lives every time they step out of their homes.
Howk: Afghan and NATO strategies must put more emphasis on intelligence operations to get ahead of these attacks. No city in the U.S. could have avoided major casualties if they faced a force the size of the one that just hit Ghazni.
The city was quickly retaken by Afghans and scores of insurgents, and allegedly Pakistan security forces, were killed and driven back. So the key, is finding out where the next major assault is slated and thwarting it. Difficult work; and the Afghans won’t be right all the time.
The key metric for me, as a guy who watched the first Afghan National Army Kandak leave Kabul to go out on combat patrols, is how fast the Afghans can retake temporarily lost territory and the casualty ratio between the professional government forces and the insurgents. Unfortunately insurgencies produce civilian casualties at an alarming rate. At this point in the war though, every civilian casualty now decreases the insurgents appeal.
The U.S. and its allies must continue to be a steady long-term partner for the Afghan government and the Afghan people in all sectors. While security continues to be the most vital sector, the world must continue to move Afghans forward economically, diplomatically, and scholastically. I am still stunned to see how fast the Afghan Army has professionalized and gained a selfless and duty-bound ethic.
Clarion: I’ve heard mixed accounts on the resolve of the Afghan security forces, including desertion amid deteriorating security. As of May 2018, Afghan security forces were just at about 300,000 members — a 10% drop according to reports. The question that begs to be asked is: Are the Afghan security forces invested in their own country?
Howk: The patriotism and resolve of the Afghan Security forces is deep. They will not and are not acting like the Soviet-backed communist army did in the 1980’s and 1990’s. People need to closely study how different these two institutions are. Follow Afghan military and police on social media and read it in their own words. They have raised a professional force that likely has Pakistan worried, although they won’t admit it. The American-led coalition should be proud of their mentorship and partnership. I cannot adequately describe what we started with in 2002. Few would believe they could come so far so fast—all while serving constantly in combat and wondering if their families would be alive when they returned home. Most can’t even imagine what is going on in an Afghan soldiers’ mind. They are dealing with a lot in a mature way.
Clarion: It’s interesting that you bring up that time period. Should we be looking at Afghanistan through a post-9/11 lens or should we broaden our timeline?
Howk: Too many observers have a limited view of Afghan history. They think Afghan issues began in 2001. As large and brutal as the August 2018 Taliban attacks were, they were small compared to the 1980s and 90s.
I urge pundits, reporters and the Taliban to read the Craig Karp State Department reports assessing the Afghan-Soviet war. You will find that the Taliban are now in the position the Soviet and communist Afghan army were in. Our time period is not equivalent to the “mujahideen” fighting the brutal Soviet and Communist Afghan Army.
In my view, the Afghan government forces today have more respect and support from Afghans than the “mujahideen” held at any point. The tables have completely turned when it comes to public support, and every attack on innocent Afghans is the Taliban driving another nail into its own coffin.
Clarion: Pakistan also plays a complicated role, with unique Taliban factions in Pakistan — a Pakistani Taliban — who have their own strategy. We also have the U.S. bypassing Pakistan in peace talks. What’s the takeaway here when it comes to Pakistan’s involvement?
Howk: Many believe that the Taliban are being used by the Pakistanis and others in a failed attempt to follow a past strategy. You can read about this strategy in two books about the Soviet-Afghan war and Pakistan’s role, the first being the Soviet General Staff study of the war:
- The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, translated by Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress.
- Afghanistan: The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower, by Mohammed Yousaf and Mark Adkin.
Some wrongly believe that by arming, funding, and giving sanctuary to an insurgent force to keep Afghanistan off-balance, the Pakistani government is making the region more stable for Pakistan and increasing their leverage with India.
But the current Taliban (some allege Pakistani) strategy is flawed. During the Soviet era, the communist Afghan government and Soviet and Afghan security forces were seen by Afghans and the world as brutal invaders or Soviet puppets. This time the barbaric oppressive “foreign” force is the Taliban insurgency and its allies. That variable is the most important one. Afghan civilians don’t see liberators coming across the border or being aided by Pakistan, they see oppressors. The Taliban partially fooled the Afghan people once in the mid 1990s. That lesson was learned, and Afghans have long memories.
The Afghan government security forces and their partners in the NATO-led coalition are on the side of peace and security that Afghans so deserve. The Afghan people see that and so does most of the world, except those that don’t care about innocent civilian deaths.
If the the Taliban continues to follow the flawed, alleged Pakistani strategy that was used by the mujahideen, they will continue down the road to death. They will never be Afghans again.