What’s Behind the Taliban’s Call for Talks?

The Taliban’s letter, which urged the American people to pressure Trump to begin peace talks, is “more of a reflection of internal Taliban politics than a very meaningful and sincere request to talk,” says Thomas Johnson, former advisor to NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Afghanistan is facing one of the bloodiest phases of its more than 16-year war. Three attacks on the capital, Kabul, recently killed over 150 people in just 10 days. The Associated Press reports that Afghan officials are carrying out at least two tracks of back channel talks with the Taliban. Just last week, the Taliban published an open letter urging Americans to pressure President Trump to begin peace talks. This came after President Trump said the U.S. will not negotiate.

DONALD TRUMP: When we see what they’re doing and the atrocities that they’re committing, and killing their own people, and those people are women and children, many many women and children that are totally innocent, it is horrible. There’s no talking to the Taliban. We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish. What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.

AARON MATÉ: The Pentagon says it has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, and there are plans for another 1,000 troops later on this spring, so war is very much on the table. Thomas Johnson is a research professor of national security affairs at the Naval post graduate school in Monterey, California, former advisor to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the author of Taliban Narratives, the Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Welcome, Professor Johnson. Let’s start with this recent letter from the Taliban. Over 2,000 words telling the American people that if President Trump continues with his current strategy, it will be more bloodshed along the lines that they’ve seen for the past 16 years. Your thoughts on this unusual overture we saw from the Taliban last week?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I don’t give it much credence. I think that it’s disingenuous in many respects. The only type of talks that can be successful in Afghanistan in my opinion are Afghan to Afghan. I think that the recent letter is more of a reflection of internal disputes between the Afghans in South Asia, or the Taliban in South Asia and the Talibans that are in their office in Qatar. They’re more moderate. I don’t give a lot of credence. I mean, Mullah Omar suggested 16 years ago that he would never sincerely negotiate with the U.S. until all foreign forces left the country. The letter suggests that the first thing they want to talk about is foreigners leaving the country. But I think that if you read the letter carefully, I think there’s a number of different indications within the letter that seem disingenuous to me. I think it’s more reflection of internal Taliban politics than a true letter to the American people. Like I said, I mean the only real negotiations that can ever be meaningful are Afghan to Afghan. Not the Taliban to the United States.

AARON MATÉ: You know, on that point about Mullah Omar, there was a piece in the New York Times in December 2016 called “How Peace Between Afghanistan and the Taliban Foundered.” It talked about the Taliban’s attempt to reach out to the U.S. through a Norwegian diplomat with the blessing directly from Mullah Omar, but that was rebuffed by the Obama administration. I’m wondering, did that possibly signify an evolution in Mullah Omar’s position, and a willingness to engage seriously with the U.S.?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, there has been an evolution. Steve Coll in his brilliant new book, Directorate S, suggests the numerous attempts that were taking place in the 2008 to 2011, 2012 period. But they never resulted in anything sincere. I think a lot of it were for symbolic reasons. I think that the Taliban were playing us to try to get certain people released from Gitmo. That was always a prerequisite of many negotiations. Of course, when we exchanged [Bowe] Bergdahl with five Taliban commanders, I think that’s what they were really after. I’ve never been very impressed with the sincerity of the Taliban asking for negotiations because I’ve never seen anything sincerely come out of them, so I think the letter is more of a reflection of internal Taliban politics than a very meaningful and sincere request to talk.

AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you this because we often forget this part of the history, but it’s interesting. Right after 9/11, the Taliban made overtures that it would be willing to consider handing over Bin Laden if the U.S. could present evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Was that sincere?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I think that that was. I think that one of the things that many Americans don’t realize is that, and it almost sounds like an oxymoron, but when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, there was a whole series of leaders in the Taliban that were considered, at least in relative terms, moderate. Many of these moderate Taliban recognized that Bin Laden was not given over. That it was going to mean the end of their regime. But Mullah Omar looked at it a different way. I think that there were cultural nuances involved in Omar’s suggestions that he would never turn over Bin laden. You’ve got to also remember that Bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan in 2006 actually, after a couple years, swore allegiance to Mullah Omar. But I don’t necessarily think that Mullah Omar’s position of not turning over Bin Laden was reflective of the entire leadership of the organization. There were moderates that recognized that this was the only way that they were going to survive as an entity.

AARON MATÉ: All right. Let’s turn back to the present. As I mentioned, you had these waves of bombings in Kabul recently, killing over 150 people, the Taliban responsible for at least the majority of those deaths. What is the current U.S. strategy right now?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I’m not sure we have a strategy. If you take a look at recent statistics, we’ve flown more air sorties, we dropped more bombs in the last six months than we have since 2014. I challenge anyone to tell me, suggest historical insurgency that’s been one purely by air power. I don’t think that we have a real strategy. I think that we’re putting in 15,000 men. That’s complimented by maybe 25,000 contractors. But if we think that 15,000 men are going to be able to do what 152,000 NATO soldiers couldn’t do over an extended period of time, I think that we’re basically kidding ourselves. I think that we’re in a holding pattern. I think that Trump’s quote strategy was basically an attempt to make sure that the war’s not lost under his watch.

Now, that’s somewhat cynical, but I just don’t see what 15,000 soldiers are going to be able to do that 152,000 NATO soldiers could not do over an extended period of time. This over reliance on air power I find very disturbing, because like I said, insurgencies, especially rural insurgencies, are not won by air power. They’re won by people on the ground, in the villages, making the insurgence irrelevant. You don’t make insurgents irrelevant by dropping bombs.

AARON MATÉ: What signs are you picking up from the U.S. military and officials in the government, and their sense of how it’s going there? You recently had this controversy where the inspector general for Afghan reconstruction accused the Pentagon of censoring the publication of vital data on the progress, or lack thereof, of U.S. forces there.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well let me tell you three key indicators that I think that we should all understand. In November of last year, the New York Times published an article that suggested that from now on, all Afghan national defense and security force casualties would be classified. The Pentagon went along with this. Now, the special … The inspector general for Afghan reconstruction a couple of weeks ago put out a report. They couldn’t even get the number of districts that were leaning to or were under the control of the Taliban. The day after they released the report, the Pentagon came back and said that “Oh, it was mislabeled. It wasn’t really classified.” The BBC that day had published a notion that around 75% of the Afghan districts were either leaning towards the Taliban, or were under their control. Now, I think that’s an overstatement, I think it’s more between 45 and 50, but the mere fact that the United States was classifying information on casualties and information on the number of districts under the control of the Taliban — which everybody admits the Taliban control more land now than they have since 2001 — is very telling.

The other thing that I think is very telling is that we’ve lost over 2400 people in Afghanistan. That’s killed in action. The casualty, the actual terrible casualties that we’ve had and the injuries are much, much higher. After spending that type of blood, we’ve also spend treasure of probably $1 trillion is a good estimate. American convoys can’t even travel in the capital city, downtown Kabul. When civilians come in to work at the State Department and the embassy in Kabul, they have to take a five minute helicopter ride over to the embassy compounds. I mean, I think that’s a real indicator of the terrible situation that presently exists in Afghanistan, that after all the blood and treasure we’ve spent, Americans can’t even travel in the capital city.

AARON MATÉ: Finally, Professor Johnson, for your book, <i>Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict,</i> you collected different chronicles from Afghan civilians. Their perspective on the state of their country today. What did you learn there about the prospects for peace? The prospects of an internal settlement of that Afghan to Afghan conflict that we began the conversation by talking about?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well let me make a couple points relative to that. If you take a look at the intrastate conflicts since World War II, I would argue that be they wars of national liberation, be they insurgency, be they civil wars, these have basically been wars of narratives supported by stories, because as Matsya Tung said, especially with an insurgency, an insurgency is like fish swimming in water. Of course, the metaphor is the fish are the insurgents and the people are the water. Narratives and stories are very important to be able to get the message across to the people, which are absolutely critical in an insurgency and a counter-insurgency.

After seven or eight years of field research, collecting literally thousands of pieces of IO or cy-op artifacts by the Taliban, I found out that they told the story that resonated with the rural Afghan. The tropes might be untrue, but they resonated. The United States and Kabul on the other hand, had no stories, no narratives or stories that resonated. If you consider that we basically occupied the country from 2001 to 2014, you better have a pretty good answer when an Afghan comes up to you and says, “Why are you in the country?” We literally didn’t.

Let me tell you a story. In 2009, I gave a keynote speech at a conference with many of the leaders of American information operations and psychological operations attending. After I gave my keynote speech, I asked the audience, that was maybe 50 to 75 people in total, “Tell me the three themes that you’re going to project this next year.” I believe it was 2009. The room went silent. I recognized at that time that this war was not winnable.

This war has been winnable militarily, but it could’ve been won if we could’ve gained the trust and confidence of the Afghan people. There we’ve just done a tremendously terrible job. That’s what my book basically focuses on. It focuses on how the Taliban, the stories they told the try to win over the population support, and the lack of stories that the United States and even Kabul told, which had a very detrimental impact on this conflict.

AARON MATÉ: Thomas Johnson, research professor of national security affairs at the Naval post graduate school. Former advisor to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the author of Taliban Narratives, the Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Professor Johnson, thank you.

THOMAS JOHNSON: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much.

AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.