Last night, at a dinner at a restaurant in Washington to present the findings of a high-powered task force on resolving the war in Afghanistan, I had an extended conversation with General Douglas Lute, President Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan.
Lute was at the dinner, organized by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, to lend his support to the release of a new report, “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace,” the result of a months-long study by a task force from the Century Foundation. To call the task force high-powered is an understatement: its co-chairs are Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria who twice served in a crucial United Nations role in dealing with Afghanistan, and Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to Russia, India and the United Nations. Among the members of the task force were the former foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey, former senior diplomats from China and Japan and a number of key former US officials, including James Dobbins, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, who was the US representative at the Bonn conference that put together the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban.
The point of the report: it’s time, immediately, to start negotiating with the Taliban. “While some counsel holding back from negotiations until military momentum is clearly and decisively in their favor, we believe that the best moment to start a political process toward reconciliation is now,” said the report. And Lute, while noting that he doesn’t agree with everything in the report, told me that his office, and the White House generally, had been cooperating with the Century Foundation task force since its inception.
Lute pointed out the significance of Secretary of State Clinton’s February 18 speech, delivered to the Asia Society in New York, a much-overlooked speech in which she announced an important, perhaps decisive, shift in US policy toward seeking a dialogue with the Taliban. In the speech, which is available on the State Department’s web site, Clinton said that after the military surge ordered by Obama in December, 2009, it’s time for diplomacy. “We are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome,” she said. Pivoting from the previous US insistence that any deals with the Taliban would involve mere “reintegration”—i.e., bribing, cajoling and persuading low-level Taliban to come over to Kabul’s side—Clinton instead called for “reconciliation.” For years, reconciliation has been a code word for talking directly to the senior officials of the Taliban about a broad-based political deal, and Clinton is ready. She emphasized that talks must involve “not just low-level fighters” but a “responsible reconciliation process.”
The major point of her speech was to emphasize that the preconditions for talking with the Taliban—namely, insisting the Taliban “renounce violence…abandon their alliance with Al Qaeda…and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan”—were now merely “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.” For the first time, the United States dropped its demand that the Taliban agree first to all that. Now, Clinton pointed out, it is enough that talks start with those goals in mind. And she added this zinger: “I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.”