It's hard to know what to make of General Petraeus's announcement yesterday that senior Taliban officials are engaged in negotiations with President Karzai. Here's the exact quote:
"There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that."
Petraeus added: "This is the way you end insurgencies."
Later this week, Karzai will appoint the members of the High Peace Council, the body that was created by the peace jirga that Karzai held last summer, an event that was greeted with suspicion and a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the United States. Its members are supposed to conduct talks with any and all members of the insurgency, including top officials of the Taliban, in search of "reconciliation." (The United States and the military have been opposed to reconciliation, favoring a limited—and useless—process called "reintegration," involving low-level Taliban fighters.)
The Times called Petraeus's comments, which were made during a news conference, the "first explicit public suggestion that there is extensive, behind-the-scenes contact between the insurgency and the Afghan government."
Everything else about American policy in Afghanistan suggests an effort to upset or derail a political settlement. At the same time the talks are taking place, US forces have drastically stepped-up the bombing of Pakistan's tribal areas, with an all-time high of twenty drone strikes across the border. Most worryingly, Petraeus also issued "veiled warnings," according to the Times, that American ground forces might cross the border, too, representing essentially an invasion of Pakistan by the United States. US Special Forces are drawing up plans for cross-border strikes. The ostensible reason for the escalation against Pakistan is that the United States is increasingly frustrated with Pakistan's refusal to after Taliban and allied forces, such as the Haqqani network. Problem is, it's unlikely that the Taliban will come to the bargaining table without Pakistan's support—indeed, without Pakistan's dragging the Taliban kicking and screaming to the table under Pakistani tutelage. But the United States continues to insist that Pakistan go to war against the Taliban and its allies, which seems calculated explicitly to sabotage, not encourage, a Pakistan-Taliban peace delegation to talks with Karzai. And the increased US attacks on Pakistan have drawn sharp rebukes from Islamabad.
Next, the United States has finally launched its military offensive in the Kandahar area, sending forces into three districts around the city: Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai. All three have been Taliban strongholds, and Zhari is a strategic area that is the hometown of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. (Sixteen American troops were killed in the first five days of the offensive in the three districts.) Perhaps the Kandahar offensive is all for show, aimed at demonstrating progress in advance of the December 2010 policy review by the White House. Perhaps the military believes that by going after the Taliban in its base, it can make it appear that the Taliban is negotiating out of weakness, rather than strength.
It's difficult to see any coherence in all of this. Still, it's encouraging that Petraeus seems to support Karzai's negotiations with the Taliban, and for the first time.