It's past time to negotiate with the Taliban.
Amid the scandal that felled David Petraeus and engulfed Gen. John Allen, public attention has focused ever so briefly on the continuing war in Afghanistan. Yet, as the United States slides toward an open-ended military commitment to the country — and Afghanistan slides ever closer to full-scale civil war — scrutiny of our abundant failures there has not increased.
This follows a familiar, but depressing pattern. During the 2012 campaign, Afghanistan received barely any mention by either presidential candidate. Troops were coming home, the Republicans couldn’t find much traction criticizing administration policy, and even the president’s liberal critics were seemingly more enraged by his drone policy in Pakistan than a war that has killed more than 1,000 soldiers — and countless Afghan civilians — since President Obama took office.
In retrospect, this was probably a good thing for Obama, since over four years of his presidency there has been no single policy more chronically adrift and more poorly handled than Afghanistan. In December 2009, Obama handed responsibility of the war to the generals and their star-crossed dreams of population-centric counterinsurgency. Despite some near-term tactical successes, their failure to account for a resilient and tenacious insurgency, a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan, and an ineffectual partner government has led to stalemate.
But with his final election behind him, Obama has an opportunity to plot a new course — toward a political settlement with the Taliban.
During the campaign Obama and Biden regularly said the war in Afghanistan was winding down and troops were coming home in 2014. There was some truth to this statement as undoubtedly there will be many fewer American troops in the hinterlands of southern and eastern Afghanistan. But it also covers up some unpleasant truths — like the fact that counterterrorism operations will almost certainly continue, and that a U.S. presence, as large as 25,000 troops, will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in his confirmation hearing Thursday morning to become the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledged as much, noting that counterterrorism operations will continue after 2014.
In other words, contrary to campaign trail protestations, the Obama administration has put the country on the path toward an enduring military commitment in Afghanistan. But if the last four years have shown us anything, it is that there is no military solution to the war. Rather, this complex conflict, which includes elements of a civil war, a foreign intervention, and a proxy conflict, will require a political settlement and acceptance by the United States and Kabul that the Taliban must be given the opportunity to play a role in the country’s political life. To some, the notion might seem heretical, particularly considering the Taliban’s obscurantist views, their atrocious record while in power, and their continued brutal insurgency. But the Taliban is not going away. They reflect a genuine strain of Afghan society. Better that their ideas be tested in a political forum than imposed from the battlefield.
While the Obama administration has rhetorically embraced the idea of political reconciliation, it has expended far too little political capital to make it an actual priority. If the United States is serious about leaving Afghanistan in better shape, it must take a number of key steps in the next few weeks and months.
First, the United States must shed any pre-conditions for talks and sit down in earnest with the Taliban. While there have been numerous contacts and talks about talks, U.S. dialogue with the Taliban and its representatives has lacked presidential commitment. Further, these efforts have been disconnected from war fighting and planning. For three years — time that could have been devoted to pursuing a political settlement — the United States has consistently and unsuccessfully sought to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. That myopic approach must end.
Second, the United States needs to revive the much-discussed supervised transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar or another mutually acceptable location. The administration considered this move earlier this year but it ultimately failed because of both pushback from Capitol Hill, but also divisions within the Taliban insurgency. When details of the potential transfer and prisoner swap became public, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, bluntly noted her objection, likely foreshadowing much greater congressional opposition if the move went forward.
With the election over, the administration should revive this effort while introducing other potential confidence-building steps, negotiating local ceasefire agreements and taking Taliban fighters off target lists, in the hopes that they produce a genuine breakthrough with the insurgents.
Next, the administration should appoint a high-level presidential envoy and provide that person with the authority and flexibility to lead negotiations with Taliban representatives. One possibility would be George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, who has worked in recent years alongside John Podesta, former head of the Center for American Progress and chief of staff to President Clinton, to promote a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
Of course, opening negotiations is no guarantee of success. In fact, like many we are far from confident about their ultimate success; and even if a political track is successful, it might take several years to negotiate a settlement and withdrawal.
But the risks of pushing forward with political reconciliation are minor and the potential upsides are significant. Moreover, there are credible signs from the Taliban and from within the Quetta Shura that suggest genuine interest in negotiations, at least among certain segments of the insurgency. This includes the Eid statement from Mullah Omar in August 2011, which acknowledged direct contacts with the United States, as well as numerous revelations of actual backchannel communications between the United States and representatives of the Taliban. A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (based on interviews with Taliban officials) indicated a willingness among segments of the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda, negotiate a cease-fire, move away from some of the more draconian policies that were put in place when the Taliban were in power, and even accept a long-term U.S. military presence in the country.
Such statements and views are not unique, and these positions have been conveyed through numerous other backchannels. Furthermore, with a continuing U.S. military presence and support post-2014, many Taliban leaders have come to the realization that negotiations might be the only path to rid themselves of the foreign occupiers. A serious outreach would clarify fundamental questions about the Taliban and their intentions, and their ability to enforce a political settlement on a fragmented network of insurgencies.
It would also finally test the fidelity of the Karzai government to its stated objective of a negotiated solution to the war, particularly in light of its often-schizophrenic approach to the issue. Indeed, perhaps the greatest impediments to peace are the old Northern Alliance figures within the Kabul government, who reject any possibility of a political deal with the Taliban. The ambivalence and at times hostility to engagement among many within the Karzai government was encapsulated by the August 2011 leaks of secret contacts between the United States and Taliban emissary, Tayyeb Agha, which effectively scuttled the momentum of those talks.
Political reconciliation could also improve U.S. relations with Pakistan.
Since 2009, U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has operated at cross-purposes with Pakistan and has enflamed an already tenuous bilateral relationship. Indeed, Islamabad’s embrace of the Taliban insurgency has meant that that we are basically fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan with Pakistan. But, while Pakistan is hardly blameless, the Obama administration has never fully appreciated its interest in Afghanistan and its genuine fears of regional encirclement.
Recognizing that Pakistan’s Taliban allies will play a role in Afghanistan’s political future is one way to assuage Pakistani fears. Admittedly, even if such concerns are accommodated, Islamabad might still not take yes for an answer. But only a serious commitment to the process will clarify everyone’s true intentions.
Beyond that, however, curtailing fighting in Afghanistan could also ameliorate the issue that roils the U.S.-Pakistan relationship more than any other: the drone war.
The fact is, the vast majority of drone strikes in Pakistan are aimed not at high-value al Qaeda targets, but rather at low-level Taliban foot soldiers. According to the New America Foundation’s database of drone strikes, Taliban militants are six times more likely to be targeted than al Qaeda. The single best way to ramp down the use of drones would be to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Considering the controversy created at home and abroad by the use of drones in Pakistan, this is a win-win.
For far too long, the Obama administration has ceded oversight of the war in Afghanistan to the military — with predictably disastrous results. With the election now in the rear view, the president has an opportunity to fix a policy that promises continued instability — and a U.S. presence there — for many years to come. There’s no reason for him not to take it. We owe it to our soldiers who have toiled and died in this conflict, and to the Afghan people who have suffered under more than 30 years of war.