The Afghan government has embarked on a high-stakes gamble: Try to negotiate with the leaders of the various insurgent networks to end the nine-year-old Afghan war.
The notion of the Kabul government cutting a deal with the Taliban is fiercely controversial — within the U.S., among the Afghan minorities who suffered under Taliban rule, and perhaps even within the Taliban itself. Both President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban denied an al-Jazeera news report that Karzai had recently met with the insurgent leader Sirajuddin Haqqani together with senior Pakistani officials.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, statements by a spokesman purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan were particularly telling. "Why [would Haqqani] go to Kabul to meet the U.S. puppet at a time when we have an upper hand in the battlefield?"
Whatever comes of reconciliation efforts, the situation on the ground will remain daunting. Deadly recent insurgent attacks on Kandahar, Kabul and the U.S. airbase in Bagram demonstrate that the Taliban remain strong. Whether or not the Taliban and other insurgent networks enjoy the "upper hand" they claim, U.S. policymakers should not assume that insurgent leaders will be eager for peace talks.
But even if the top insurgent leaders have no incentive to negotiate with the Afghan government, it may still be possible to persuade their foot soldiers to lay down their arms. Most evidence suggests that the rank-and-file fighters are more motivated by the need to support their families than by Taliban ideology. Thus, even if the leadership won't come in from the cold, a well-planned program to reintegrate insurgents and mid-level commanders could still succeed in boosting morale within Afghan society while weakening it among the insurgent elite.
There is little question that insurgent recruitment is up, particularly among the Taliban. In early 2002 only a handful of Taliban militants remained active in Afghanistan. Today, estimates of active fighters range from 15,000 to 20,000. No one knows exactly what percentage of these men subscribe to the radical ideology of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But every Taliban foot soldier or mid-level commander who puts down his gun in favor of a job weakens the insurgents' narrative and strengthens the Karzai government's assertion that it is delivering jobs and butter to the Afghan population.
There are many reasons why the Taliban elite are uninterested in negotiating for peace. Some elements of the Pakistani army are widely believed to continue their support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan.
International jihadi groups, as well as some rich individuals from the Gulf states, continue to finance the insurgency. Production, taxation and trade of illegal drugs serve as another major source of funding. Additionally, virtually all the insurgent networks are able to extort "taxes" from companies moving goods around the country and into Afghanistan from abroad. This ongoing access to cash explains in part the lack of interest in peace talks by the Taliban.
Finally, Afghanistan's unemployment rate, estimated at 35-40 percent, helps the insurgents recruit. For many poor, uneducated and unskilled youth, joining insurgent factions, working for regional warlords, or toiling in the drug industry is more about making money than about religion or ideology. But civilian casualties caused by U.S. attacks are also a motivator.
The Afghan government, the U.S. and other international forces will never be able to deploy enough security forces to provide sufficient forces to reassure the population, or kill or capture enough insurgents to turn the tide. Enticing low- and mid-level insurgents to leave the battlefield is critical to achieving security. That effort must be accompanied by attention to fundamental issues like unemployment, political grievances and security guarantees.
Even if insurgent leaders pound their chests and vow to fight on, a strong and thoughtful effort to reach out to and reintegrate the men at the bottom of the insurgent heap would help establish peace and security in Afghanistan.
Wali Shaaker, an Afghan-American, is the author of "Democracy's Dilemma: The Challenges to State Legitimacy in Afghanistan" and a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. John Parachini is a senior policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit policy-research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Providence Journal on July 15, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.