Terms of Engagement

Let’s Make a Deal

The United States and the Taliban should be able to work out a compromise on Afghanistan. But will the Afghans be able to live with it?

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

OSLO — I happened to be in Oslo for a conference (of the very worthy Center for Humanitarian Dialogue) when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his Afghanistan speech on June 22. The next morning I sat down with Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan under the Taliban government. Zaeef (above left, in 2001) was imprisoned in Guantánamo, and his autobiography, My Life With the Taliban, is infused with an obviously sincere hatred for the United States. Though he is no longer a member of the Taliban, he is believed to be in touch with the leadership, and American diplomats, among others, now use Zaeef as an intermediary with his old colleagues. Taliban who talk may soon become more important figures than Taliban who fight.

I asked Zaeef, a burly man of 43 with spectacles and a wiry black beard, whether he thought Obama’s announcement that the United States would withdraw 33,000 troops by summer 2012 would increase the chances for a settlement. "It’s very hard for me to take this information truly," he said. Zaeef assumed Obama was lying. But what happens, I asked, if you see the troops actually leaving? "They have to change the strategy from war to politics," Zaeef said. The United States, that is, has to stop fighting and start talking.

U.S. troops will not stop fighting, of course. But Obama’s speech signals the beginning of a new stage of talking. Peace, the president said, can only arrive via a "political settlement." Though this has long been the official American position, Obama gave it much more emphasis than he had before and spoke less than he usually does about progress inside Afghanistan. He did say that "because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made."

But is that true? Have military gains made the Taliban amenable to diplomacy in a way that they were not before? Zaeef dismissed the idea with a polemical flourish. "If you kill one Taliban, five more will come," he said. That’s the party line, of course. And American military persistence may have helped persuade the Taliban that it could not simply wait until the foreign troops went home. But Taliban officials have been talking about a political settlement for the last two years or so, and NATO allies have been urging the United States to take the offers seriously; it is the American position that has changed. Moreover, the vaunted — and genuine — military gains in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have been offset by growing Taliban control of the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, as well as mounting violence in the north perpetrated by both Taliban-affiliated fighters and groups such as Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group associated with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

And the military effort has shown far more signs of success than either the massive campaign to train Afghan security forces or the civilian side of the counterinsurgency effort. As the Afghanistan expert Gilles Dorronsoro writes in a recent report titled "Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition," U.S. influence over Afghan governance is now "negligible," while "there is nothing to indicate that the army will be able to act autonomously over a large part of the country’s territory in two or three years." Dorronsoro argues that the American position has grown weaker rather than stronger; even if this is unduly pessimistic, it’s hard to take seriously Obama’s implication that the United States has waited until the balance of power has tipped its way before beginning talks.

And this brings us back to Zaeef, and to the question of what kind of Afghanistan the Taliban is prepared to accept. I asked him whether he believed, as some other Taliban figures have said, that the group made mistakes during its period of brutal and reactionary rule in the late 1990s. He wouldn’t bite. "There was no government then," he said. "We have to disarm the warlords. We have to punish the criminals. You have to be strong with them, be harsh with them." Zaeef is very fond of the words "harsh" and "punish," and he uses them as terms of praise. "Afghanistan cannot be controlled without a good and smart dictator," he told me. "You need someone to be strong, honest, and also harsh." Zaeef views democracy as a Western bauble prized only by decadent urbanites. (He is himself a rustic from Kandahar province.) 

At the same time, Zaeef is no medievalist. The day before we spoke, he approached Fatima Gailani, a leading Afghan feminist also attending the conference, to ask for help in opening separate boarding schools for boys and girls. Under the Taliban, he insists, "there will be freedom for women." It’s not quite clear what Zaeef means by that, since he says that the Taliban’s goal is "Islamic law." But he also favors (as the Quran dictates) female inheritance and the payment of dowry to women rather than their families. Zaeef says that the Taliban will not insist on control over the Pashtun-majority districts of the south, though David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency guru with long experience in Afghanistan, says that the Taliban field commanders he has spoken to say that they expect just that, along with control over several central ministries.

Can the United States live with such an Afghanistan? It can — so long as the Taliban, in Obama’s words, "break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution." American officials say they believe that Taliban leaders are prepared to accept those conditions — or at least the central leadership in the Pakistan city of Quetta is. It’s not at all clear that the young bucks who have taken over for older field commanders decimated by American forces will abide by decisions from Taliban HQ. And the Haqqani network responsible for so much of the violence in Afghanistan is considered responsive only to Pakistani intelligence — which is another problem altogether.

Can Afghans like Fatima Gailani, or the many non-Pashtuns in the country’s north, live with such a negotiated solution? That’s far from clear, and both liberal-minded Afghans and non-Pashtuns worry that President Hamid Karzai, with the tacit approval of the Americans, will sell them out. A Taliban that does not feel defeated, negotiating as much from a position of strength as one of weakness, may forget the lessons it has learned from 10 years in the wilderness and interpret its fidelity to Afghanistan’s constitution more and more loosely over time. And the truth — the harsh truth, as Zaeef would say — is that the United States is willing to live with a settlement that keeps out al Qaeda and averts civil war, even if it comes at the cost of the social progress made possible by the past decade’s Western presence. The Afghan people will have to stand up for themselves.

The other harsh truth is that the surge in Afghanistan — unlike the surge in Iraq — was unnecessary. The limited counterinsurgency strategy that Obama agreed to adopt in the fall of 2009 did not produce an Afghan government able to "build" where international forces had "cleared" and "held" territory or to command the loyalty of its citizens, and the real military gains have not been sufficient to make the Taliban lay down its arms and accept otherwise intolerable terms. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a great success, but it’s simply not credible that this one act so reduced the al Qaeda threat that the United States could bring the surge to an end. It offered, rather, an excellent pretext to do so. If there is now light at the end of the tunnel, it’s because the Obama administration has ratcheted its hopes and expectations ever downward. It’s an irony that few could have expected in early 2009 — that the Iraq war has been a success for Obama, and Afghanistan a failure. 

Zaeef told me that his new book is coming out in two weeks. The Pashto title translates as The Fundamental Problem of Afghanistan. I asked him what that fundamental problem was. "The Afghan people are too optimistic," he said blandly. They keep trusting foreigners — the British, the Russians, the Americans — and then getting betrayed. He forgot to add: and then they tear them to bits.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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