In Afghanistan, Taliban seems divided at a key juncture

While the U.S. is scrambling to react to a series of damaging setbacks, the Taliban has not taken full advantage, apparently because it is divided over its strategy.

March 25, 2012|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Villagers in Afghanistan’s Panjwayi district, in Kandahar province, pray over the grave of one of 17 civilians killed there, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.
Villagers in Afghanistan’s Panjwayi district, in Kandahar province,… (Allauddin Khan, Associated…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —  

Lately, it has seemed that the Taliban can just sit back and wait for the next American mistake.

Over the last three months, a series of highly damaging events has forced U.S. commanders and officials to adopt a posture of nonstop crisis management. Even so, the insurgents have not taken full advantage of the American setbacks, in part because the movement appears divided over its own strategy.

This month, the Taliban leadership abruptly suspended preliminary peace contacts with the Americans, a move seen by some as tactical and temporary, but interpreted by others as reflecting internal argument over whether negotiations were even worthwhile at this point.

Within the movement, some believe it might make more sense to wait out the U.S. militarypresence rather than come to the bargaining table. The insurgents are well aware of growing calls in the United States for a sped-up pullout from Afghanistan, calls that intensified after the massacre of 17 villagers in Kandahar province, in which aU.S. Army staff sergeant has been charged.

Heading into the spring "fighting season," some Taliban field operatives boast that large-scale attacks might not be needed to erode Western forces' sway, especially in rural districts where American troops were disliked and distrusted even before the Kandahar killings.

It appeared a different story as 2012 began and the Taliban announced its readiness to open a liaison office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. U.S. officials characterized the move as the most definitive sign yet that the insurgents were ready to begin steps toward forging a political accord to end the decade-old war.

Weeks later, an inflammatory video emerged of U.S. Marines urinating on what were believed to be the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. In February, the apparently mistaken burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S. base triggered a week of deadly riots across Afghanistan. And on Friday, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the shootings in Kandahar's Panjwayi district on March 11. Nine of the victims were children.

"The Taliban are benefiting from these incidents," said Mullah Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban envoy who is now a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which is trying to draw the insurgents into talks.

Others, though, see any benefit to the insurgents as short-lived.

"I don't think the U.S. should completely lie down and play dead because of this tragedy," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a former lawmaker who is now a broadcaster and analyst. "But a reckless response will play into their hands."

Because Taliban statements so often characterize actions by U.S. troops as atrocities, the movement seemed briefly flummoxed over how to respond to a string of incidents that angered so many Afghans.

The Taliban railed against the urination video, the Koran burning and the Kandahar killings, but did not cite any of those as reasons for breaking off preliminary talks. Rather, its leadership pointed to "unacceptable" conditions posed by the U.S., thought to center on delays in arranging the transfer of five senior Taliban prisoners from U.S. military detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.

Subsequent statements, though, have made it clear that the insurgents were focusing on ways to tap public animosity toward Americans over the Kandahar shootings.

As the formal charges against Bales were presented, the Taliban scoffed at the notion that any punishment meted out by the U.S. military would fit the crime and revived claims put forth by some Afghan officials and villagers that many American troops had taken part in the attack. The military says Bales is the sole suspect.

In a statement posted on its website Friday, the Taliban called the Koran burning and the Kandahar shootings part of a pattern of atrocities that would naturally affect "the atmosphere of negotiations," signaling, perhaps, that U.S. concessions would be needed to revive any dialogue.

A well-worn weapon in the Taliban arsenal is that of depicting the government of President Hamid Karzai as an American lap dog. Seeking to dispel any such image, the Afghan leader has recently taken a particularly combative stance toward his U.S. patrons, calling for American forces to withdraw from rural areas such as the one where the Kandahar shootings occurred, and digging in his heels on terms of a long-term agreement governing the terms of a U.S. military presence after 2014, when NATO's combat mission is to end.

A key sticking point in negotiating the so-called strategic partnership agreement has been night raids spearheaded by U.S. forces. The insurgents stand to benefit from Karzai's efforts to curtail the raids, including a potential compromise that would give Afghan authorities greater control over who would be targeted. Previously, U.S. intelligence leading to raids has been as tightly held as possible, for fear of compromising the operations.

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