Media Blog

Frist: Let’s Bring Back the Taliban

UPDATED AND BUMPED: Frist Says AP Story “Badly Distorts my Remarks and Takes Them Out of Context.”

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse:

QALAT, Afghanistan — U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Monday that the Afghan guerrilla war can never be won militarily and called for efforts to bring the Taliban and their supporters into the Afghan government.
The Tennessee Republican said he had learned from briefings that Taliban fighters were too numerous and had too much popular support to be defeated by military means.
“You need to bring them into a more transparent type of government,” Frist said during a brief visit to a U.S. and Romanian military base in the southern Taliban stronghold of Qalat. “And if that’s accomplished we’ll be successful.”

Allah writes:

If we’re going to do this, just pull everyone out. Don’t lend an imprimatur of legitimacy to it by shepherding these medieval savages into a U.S.-backed government. Pull out, admit defeat, and let the Taliban take back the country through force. Then we can really and truly be back to September 10, 2001. Minus a skyscraper or two.

I’ve read quite a few pieces in recent months about how the GOP can avoid electoral disaster and retain their majority status in Congress. None of those pieces said anything about conceding Afghanistan to the Taliban. For good reason.
UPDATE: Via Ed Morrissey, who contacted Frist’s office to follow up on this story, Frist has now posted a statement on his VOLPAC blog saying his remarks were taken out of context:

I’m currently overseas visiting our troops in Afghanistan, but I wanted to take a moment to address an Associated Press story titled, “Frist: Taliban Should Be in Afghan Gov’t.” The story badly distorts my remarks and takes them out of context.
First of all, let me make something clear: The Taliban is a murderous band of terrorists who’ve oppressed the people of Afghanistan with their hateful ideology long enough. America’s overthrow of the Taliban and support for responsible, democratic governance in Afghanistan is a great accomplishment that should not and will not be reversed.
Having discussed the situation with commanders on the ground, I believe that we cannot stabilize Afghanistan purely through military means. Our counter-insurgency strategy must win hearts and minds and persuade moderate Islamists potentially sympathetic to the Taliban to accept the legitimacy of the Afghan national government and democratic political processes.
National reconciliation is a necessary and an urgent priority … but America will never negotiate with terrorists or support their entry into Afghanistan’s government.

This is only slightly better than what Frist was quoted as saying in the story (example: “[Frist] said the only way to win in places like Qalat is to ‘assimilate people who call themselves Taliban into a larger, more representative government.’”). Is it really possible that we have no longer possess a viable military strategy for defeating the Taliban?
UPDATE II: An officer in the U.S. Army — who emphasizes that his opinions are his own and not those of the U.S. Army – writes:

I need to reword your question to answer it effectively.  The correct question should be, “Is there a viable military strategy for defeating any insurgency?”  The answer to this question is no, with the operative word being “military.”  Pick up almost any literature on insurgency and counterinsurgency strategy and you’ll find that while the military does play an important role in maintaining security and killing or capturing “irreconcilable” insurgents, the most effective means for defeating an insurgency is derived from the other elements of national power, namely diplomatic, informational, and economic. 
One case in point is the French experience in Algeria, as depicted in the movie The Battle of Algiers.  The French were ruthless in their goal to eradicate Algiers, the capital city, of insurgents.  They were ultimately successful, but at what price?  They won the battle but lost the war, and the insurgency rebuilt and came back stronger than ever three years later.  The French used the big M, or military, approach you seem to favor in Afghanistan, and basically ignored the other elements of national power as well as ignoring the very real grievances of the Algerian people, many of whom were Muslim.  They did not address or change the underlying conditions that fueled the insurgency in the first place, and that led to their failure. 
Another point to mention is that most, if not all, successful counterinsurgency campaigns have, at their conclusion, brought both sides into the political process.  This makes sense if the insurgency has at its endstate a desire to change the country politically in some way shape or form.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, there is the added element of religion that cannot be discounted. 
Whenever an insurgency has a modicum of popular support, even if that support is passive in nature, then the insurgents are nearly impossible to root out militarily.  I’m headed to Iraq next week, and I haven’t been studying the conflict in Afghanistan in any depth lately, but if the Taliban has some level of popular support there, then there must be some reason for that.  That underlying reason is what we (and by we I mean primarily the government of Afghanistan, with our help) need to understand.  Once we understand, we can work to change the conditions to deny that support to the truly hard core insurgents. 
This is one of the reasons we are having trouble in Iraq.  We’re not dealing with one insurgency, with dealing with many different insurgencies.  A move to pacify one group pisses the other one off.  True reconciliation and peace will only come when all sides make the decision to work out their problems at the bargaining table or the ballot box, not at the barrel of a gun.  This is what I believe Senator Frist was saying in the excerpt you cited.   We can kick ass militarily, but still lose the greater battle that is Afghanistan unless we do what he is talking about (another illustration of this point is the Russian campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where they brought incredible military power to bear on a regular basis, but still lost the war – badly). 
Counterinsurgency is dissimilar to many other forms of conflict/warfare.  The rules change, and the things you need to do to win change. 
Hope this helps put some things into perspective.

It does. I can only hope that this is actually what Frist was trying to say, and that the AP botched the translation.
UPDATE III: More thoughts from Captain Ed.