Last October a U.S. unmanned Predator aircraft struck a compound run by the powerful, al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani family in North Waziristan. It was early Thursday morning in Pakistan, and the drone hit a village on the outskirts of Miramshah where militant leader Jalaluddin Haqqani had established a madrassa, or religious school, and where his extended family was believed to live. Scores of casualties were reported but Haqqani and other leaders went unharmed.
That was clear last month when, only days after President Barack Obama indicated that he would be willing to open talks with "moderate elements" of Afghanistan's Taliban, Afghan leaders acknowledged that a mediating team had been meeting for months-even before the Predator attack-with members of the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Maulavi Arsala Rahmani, a senator and a member of the mediating team, told the Christian Science Monitor in a March 19 report that preliminary talks with the Taliban were underway, and that in September 2008 Afghan officials and a group of former Taliban members met in Mecca. The Taliban agreed to act as intermediaries between the government and the insurgents. That was the groundwork, according to Kabul officials, for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai and Haqqani, previously sworn enemies.
But in a bizarre twist, the U.S. State Department on March 25 issued a $5 million bounty "for information leading to the location, arrest, and/or conviction of Sirajuddin Haqqani." The State Department considers Sirajuddin "a senior leader of the Haqqani terrorist network founded by his father Jalaluddin Haqqani" and stated that he "maintains close ties to al-Qaeda." It also noted that Haqqani admitted planning the Jan. 14, 2008, attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including an American citizen.
Determining whether key members of the Haqqani network are wanted terrorists or negotiating partners is just one of the finer-but crucial-details in implementing the president's new plan for Afghanistan. In addition to putting more troops on the ground, much emphasis is being placed on replicating the turnaround in Iraq that took place in battle-ridden provinces when former Sunni insurgent leaders came f-orward to negotiate with U.S. commanders.
But key military advisors stress that another way to strike al-Qaeda affiliates and Taliban fighters may be needed in Afghanistan: by changing strategy from chasing the enemy to protecting the Afghan people. For too long U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan has been "enemy-centric," according to David Kilcullen, a former senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.
"Thus we need to induce local tribal and community leaders who have the respect and tribal loyalty of part-time elements to wean them away from loyalty to the main-force Taliban," Kilcullen writes in his new book The Accidental Guerrilla. A former Australian army officer, Kilcullen believes that many fighting alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban (what he calls the "broader Taliban confederation") are not committed jihadists but young men alienated by the U.S. invasion, government corruption, and tribalism. "Appealing to the self-interest of local clandestine cell leaders may also help isolate them from the influence of senior Taliban leaders who are currently safe in Pakistan," he writes.
Clearly Afghans are not safe, as civilian fatalities have climbed from 929 in 2006 to 2,118 in 2008. U.S. military casualities are also up, from 98 in 2006 to 155 in 2008, with 41 already recorded this year. Meanwhile, the number of IED attacks has more than doubled, according to the Brookings Institute's Afghanistan Index: from 1,232 in 2006 to 3,276 in 2008.