When he was the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus made co-option and integration of "reconcilable" enemies, particularly Sunni forces, a central component of his counterinsurgency strategy in 2007. Making peace with those willing to make peace was a hallmark of efforts at national reconciliation between the Baghdad government and the Iraqi people. Now it appears that Petraeus is looking to apply a similar formula to the war in Afghanistan.
This month he made the surprising announcement that U.S. forces have been helping insurgent commanders travel into Kabul in support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's peace overtures toward the Taliban and other factions at war with the central government and NATO forces. Karzai has launched a new so-called High Council for Peace, the latest diplomatic effort to end the war that has ravaged his country for the past nine years. Petraeus was cautious as usual, telling reporters last week that the talks can "only be characterized as preliminary in nature, they certainly would not be raised to the level of negotiations."
Whatever the status of the reconciliation talks, combat engagements between the Taliban and U.S. forces have ticked up dramatically in the past few months. The escalation has meant more Taliban attacks, more U.S. casualties, and more drone and conventional air strikes. Meanwhile, the deadline set by President Obama to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces is only a scant nine months away.
Obama, Petraeus, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have insisted that the drawdown will be contingent on progress being made against the Taliban, little of which can easily be shown to date, note Afghan experts who point to grim statistics. According to the United Nations, as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan during the past year, despite the presence of 150,000 foreign troops now focused on protecting the populace. Nearly 600 NATO troops, most of them Americans, have lost their lives this year. The U.S. drone campaign, which U.S. intelligence officials say is one of their most potent in combating the terrorist threat, has claimed more than 150 lives in attacks in the tribal regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan since the first week of September, raising tensions with the government in Islamabad.
If the increasing tempo of military operations against the Taliban is, as many strategists intuit, a way for Petraeus to push the enemy into accepting more Kabul-friendly terms at the peace table, it is a strategy that works both ways: Taliban attacks against NATO forces reportedly stand at more than 1,500 per week. Peace talks are unlikely to amount to much, Afghan watchers note, if the Taliban continues to fight NATO forces to a stalemate. CIA Director Leon Panetta told reporters last week that he hasn't seen serious signs of reconciliation from the Taliban.
Meanwhile, back in Iraq—as that country struggles to form a government after months of internal deliberations, there are indications that some of the 100,000 Sunnis who switched sides during the Awakening are now throwing their lot back in with the al Qaeda-influenced insurgent groups.