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Red lines and the Taliban

January 24, 2014

Summary: A Taliban suicide attack on a restaurant in Kabul kills twenty civilians.  Can an enforceable red line be drawn against future Taliban behaviour?

No red line here...

No red line here…

On Friday 17th January, the Taliban attacked the Lebanese restaurant, La Taverna du Liban, in the middle of the diplomatic quarter in central Kabul.  They directed a suicide bomber against the gates to blow them down, followed up by two gunmen to kill anyone they could find in the compound.   In a matter of minutes, they killed twenty Afghan and international civilians.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network has provided one of the best (and very timely) pieces of analysis of this incident, including details of the scene inside the restaurant, together with the statements from the Taliban themselves.  The Taliban claim that the attack was a reprisal for an incident two days earlier where a joint ISAF/Afghan army combat operation reportedly killed a number of Afghan civilians.

I have some analytical points to make regarding the attack:

  • Like the AAN, I am sceptical that the Taliban have the capability to put together a moderately complex operation – including essential prior reconnaissance – so quickly.  It seems more likely that they have pulled in a recent ISAF/ANSF incident potentially involving civilians in order to act as partial justification for the deaths of the civilians that they were planning, in anticipation of the popular backlash against such an attack.
  • I also sense that, in order to maintain a flow of high media-profile incidents in the capital city, the Taliban are having to find “softer” targets – restaurants, civilians, etc – because Kabul is now highly protected and those doing the protecting are becoming increasingly experienced at responding to and dealing with such insurgent operations.  The nature of the Taliban attacks are, dare I say, quite predictable, even if not always preventable.  Is it proof that the Taliban are struggling to sustain operations?
  • Finally – and leading on to the next part of my piece – Taliban terror attacks are not particularly new.  If it does represent a shift in tactics (presumably in the sense that the Taliban are becoming more extreme and inclined towards terror), it is a shift that has been evident for some years.  Over the years they have attacked hotels, schools, teachers, aid workers, internet cafes, the Red Cross, civilian NGOs, supermarkets, restaurants, sporting events (Kandahar wrestling match in 2007, 21 Afghans killed), mosques and the Koran and assassinated the senior member of the High Peace Council.  Many of these attacks have included foreigners.  I’m detecting an unpleasant pattern here…

But the purpose of this piece is to take up a comment, or rather an expression, that Kate Clark used in her piece and throw it open for questions and discussion.

The title of the AAN piece started off with “Another Red Line Crossed…”,  and I wanted to ask what “Red Line” means here, in the context of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

Q: What happens when a red line is crossed?

A: Nothing

What does “red line” mean?  What should it mean, if anything?  Does it mean unacceptable and illegal behaviour that when it takes place, should be confronted, punished or sanctioned in some way?  And I mean beyond “standard” messages of condemnation.  The AAN have perhaps put their finger on a key problem – the international community and Afghan government have no red lines, no “teeth”, or credibility.  They do not even attempt to draw lines in the sand (I am mixing my metaphors here).  Even if “Red Lines” or “Lines in the Sand” were drawn, they would likely be worthless which, once crossed, would mean nothing and go unenforced.

Perhaps this is recognised and understood by the insurgents at some level and causing the Taliban to conclude that:

  • The international community and the Afghan government are not credible and
  • are so desperate to get the Taliban to the table than almost any Taliban behaviour can be tolerated (eg Rabbani, Head of HPC, was killed by Taliban in a suicide attack in Sept 2011)
  • A small and unintended civilian casualty incident caused by the ISAF forces is much more likely to be criticised by the IC and the Afghan government than any intentional large-scale killing of civilians that the Taliban could do
  • Talks will be conducted how and when the Taliban decide and it will be about returning some form of power to the Taliban

But the main question is whether there are steps that could or should be taken by way of “punishing” the Taliban for the actions?

Can anything be done?  How do you punish the Taliban?  Are we treading too softly around the Taliban?  Can we do anything to signal that they do not have it all their own way?  A quick brainstorm of options reveals not much of any help:

  • Military options?  Increase drones, new surge?  Not very likely or practical
  • Political sanctions? No options? Maybe a UN announcement (website?) that goes beyond condemnation, messaging that the Taliban are looking less like a group that could get involved in running a country (in whatever fashion) – raise issue of war crimes?
  • Social sanctions? No options
  • Economic sanctions? No options
  • Indict for war crimes? Maybe
  • Withhold political dialogue for a defined period?

Would stopping dialogue achieve anything useful?

I think that perhaps the last idea could be explored further.  What would happen if the Afghan government, with the backing of the UN, the US and the rest of the international community were to announce that dialogue with the Taliban will be stopped for a year.  All resources will be put into the ANSF and the counter-insurgency campaign.  Anyone wanting to reconcile individually is still welcome.  Perhaps a tougher version of this would be to say that no dialogue will be initiated until the Taliban prove that they are genuinely interested.

In effect, the Afghan government states that Taliban will just have to do their worst (which they are doing anyway), whilst stressing that they will be killing many Afghan civilians.  The message will be “good luck with your fighting season but the ANSF is stronger and more effective and more experienced as each month goes by…”

Dialogue looks stalled anyway and the Taliban have made little in the way of credible gestures of intent.  The Taliban gained much publicity and profile by announcing they were stopping talks (in March 2012)

Is it possible that international community and the Afghan government might claw back a little bit of credibility – and therefore get taken a little more seriously by Taliban. Perhaps by seizing the initiative the international community and the Afghan government benefits by putting the Taliban on the reactive back foot?  They generally find this uncomfortable and might cause them to reflect.

More questions than answers…

At the moment the red lines do not appear to exist.  But perhaps the international community, in conjunction with the Afghan government, could give thought to this issue, rather than merely ticking off “Another Red Line Crossed” each time.  Maybe proactively announcing an actual “red line” – for example “next time a suicide attack kills civilians we will suspend talks from all quarters” – might be helpful.  Perhaps some credibility is gained – for the benefit of future dialogue efforts – if the Taliban might understand the negotiations will not be dictated purely by them – and regardless of their behaviour…?

There is surely psychological power to be had in the Taliban confronting a year of further combat without respite.  Even more so if the messaging strongly pushes the idea that, for example, the ANSF are preparing for a 10 year campaign (at least) and the Afghan people have decided that they do not want to reconcile with the Taliban – at least to have these idea floated in the media… perhaps backed with a shift in focus to talk more to Hezb-e Islami dialogue regarding their return to Afghan politics with some form of reconciliation.  Losing a year of dialogue that will, in all likelihood, be of limited value anyway – is it worth a small short term loss for a longer-term gain?

So the questions for discussion perhaps look like this:

  • Are there Red Lines for unacceptable Taliban behaviour?
  • Should there be?
  • How would a Red Line be phrased, monitored and applied?
  • What Taliban behaviour would trigger a Red Line? (chemical weapons? mass casualties? civilian airliner shot down? killing the president?)
  • What sanctions could effectively be directed at the Taliban?
  • What would the impact be of suspending talks with the Taliban?
  • Would there be any benefit in suspending (or threatening to suspend) talks as a sanction against the Taliban?

I am very much of the opinion that, ultimately, political dialogue is the only long-term way forward.  But, if one side is able to act with impunity, without fear of consequence or the need to make plausible gestures or concessions towards dialogue, perhaps the dialogue – and the final settlement – is always going to be badly distorted.

Anyone got any thoughts?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2014 3:19 pm

    I mean no disrespect to the gravity of your subject, but I wonder if any stand-up comic or late-night TV comic has emulated a national politician saying “I am drawing a Double Red Line, in bold face, with an exclamation point after it, and I really, really, mean it!”

  2. January 24, 2014 4:09 pm

    Ron – no disresepct to the undoubted humour of your joke, but I am sure some political parody somewhere has surely already taken this on! But you are right of course – difficult to sustain credibility with this concept of red lines…

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