The U.S.-led coalition force in Afghanistan first must escalate its counterinsurgency operations and only then begin reconciliation efforts with leaders of the militancy, veterans of the Iraq campaign told members of Congress on Tuesday.
Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, said reconciliation and reintegration will become possible only when insurgents are no longer sure they are winning.
Advocating a tougher military approach, he said, “You don’t get cracks and fissures in a rock until you bring a hammer down on it.”
The U.S. military appears to be preparing for such a strategy.
A Western official based in Afghanistan, discussing the situation there on the condition of anonymity, said “fireworks” were expected soon in the southern province of Kandahar, where U.S.-led troops have been engaged in what he described as “mopping-up operations” against the Taliban.
While the Obama administration has advocated reintegration efforts with lower members of the insurgency in Afghanistan, broader reconciliation efforts, which would involve talks with terrorist leaders, have not received much support.
The congressional hearing on Tuesday was the first dedicated to reconciliation.
David Kilcullen, who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus when the general headed the coalition force in Iraq, emphasized the need for a “big tactical hit” on the Taliban. (Gen. Petraeus is currently the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.)
“We need to do some very significant damage to the Quetta Shura, Haqqani Network … We need to kill a lot of Taliban … You have to do that kind of damage to a terrorist organization before it becomes ready to talk,” Mr. Kilcullen said.
He ruled out negotiating with the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, saying the terrorist group, which has inflicted a large number of casualties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is not acting on its own initiative.
“If you negotiate with the organ grinder’s monkey, you may as well negotiate with the organ grinder himself,” Mr. Kilcullen said.
Pressed by Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to explain, he said there was “considerable collusion” between the Haqqani Network and “elements within some parts of the national security establishment in Pakistan.”
This week, leaked documents revealed such links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, has said the documents do not accurately reflect the situation on the ground.
Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International, told lawmakers the Afghan government should close the door to discussions with the Haqqani Network, because of the atrocities it has committed. She advocated talking to more moderate members of the Taliban.
But Mr. Crocker said it is important to talk to anyone who is willing to talk, adding that U.S. officials talked to “a host of extremely unpleasant people” in Iraq.
Militant leaders in Afghanistan have shown little willingness to negotiate.
Last month, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said U.S. officials had not seen “any firm intelligence” that insurgent groups in Afghanistan were interested in reconciliation.
U.S. officials in private say their efforts in Afghanistan are hamstrung by the endemic corruption and bad governance on the ground. There is also growing unease that reconciliation efforts are directed only at the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.
Mr. Kerry said reconciliation must address the anxieties of Afghanistan’s minorities — the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks — who fear being left out in a Pashtun-only deal and Pashtuns too must also feel included in the process.
The lack of tangible progress in Afghanistan and fear of being trapped in another Vietnam-like war have given momentum to calls to wrap up the mission in Afghanistan.
Mr. Crocker said a successful counterinsurgency operation would require time and patience, but worried that “impatience is on the rise again in this country.”
Mr. Crocker served in Iraq with Gen. Petraeus.
“Gen. Petraeus and I used to talk about the difference between the Washington clock and the Baghdad clock. Now it is between the Washington clock and the tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan where there are no clocks,” he said.
Mr. Crocker worried that the July 2011 timeline set by the Obama administration to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was being misinterpreted by U.S. adversaries..
“I am concerned they simply see July 2011 as a date on a calendar as the point they have to hold out to and then they’re OK,” he said.
“Our friends are unsure about our commitment and hedge their bets, our enemies think they can outlast us,” Mr. Crocker added.