There is nothing surprising about the Anglo-American decision to spend their way out of a hopeless war in Afghanistan by creating a fund to compensate defectors from the Taliban. In counter-insurgency, context is everything. Had the Taliban been on the verge of defeat on the battlefield, a few million dollars could well hasten the disintegration of its fighting formations. But given the nature of the conflict, the historical background, and the appalling scale of civilian casualties inflicted by the occupation, it is the Taliban who have been growing in strength, capability, and initiative. It is the U.S.-led coalition that is looking for a quick way out of a calamitous misadventure. Today, the binding constraint in the war against the Taliban is not the number of American troops or the lethality of their firepower but the capacity of the Afghan National Army and the willingness of Pakistan to tamp down and eliminate its ties with the extremist militias. The cash solution pushed through at the recent London conference on Afghanistan addresses neither of these constraints. Islamabad is likely to see the plan as another sign of Anglo-American desperation and as vindication of its strategy of keeping alive ‘assets’ like the Quetta shura of the Talibani and the Haqqani network leadership.
As for the Afghan National Army, its ranks already suffer from problems of low pay and morale. If extremists are now to be bought over with cash, the message it will send to army soldiers is that they chose the wrong side. This is not to say creative solutions are not needed to bring an end to the war. Dialogue and reconciliation are needed, although it is clear the Taliban leadership (and the al-Qaida elements, to the extent they are active on the ground in Afghanistan) is not interested in either. Rank-and-file fighters and even commanders are another kettle of fish but the danger is that the cash being ponied up to engineer defections might end up in the hands of the Taliban themselves. The equation would have been different had the offer of rehabilitation been made from a position of strength. There should of course be no illusion about the character of the Taliban: they remain as fundamentalist, as reactionary, and as brutal as they ever were. But as long as the U.S. and its allies wage and lead the war in Afghanistan, civilians will continue to be killed in large numbers and the Taliban support base will not erode. The occupation must end and, when that happens, there will be major consequences for the government and people of Afghanistan. But that scenario is unavoidable and must be faced sooner than later.