Is there any chance that the logjam on negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan is loosening up? You might think so, from the spate of reports that various parties—including the United Nations and the government of Afghanistan—are serious about reconciliation talks with Taliban officials. So far, however, the United States seems to be taking a hands-off attitude.
Let's review the bidding.
In six weeks or so, President Karzai of Afghanistan—yes, that supposedly discredited figure who stayed in power by rigging last summer's election—will convene a grand tribal council, or loya jirga, to seek a broad pact of reconciliation that, he says, is meant to include Afghan leaders of the Taliban. To the horror and consternation of US officials, who say that they support "reintegration" of the Taliban's fighters into Afghan society but oppose "reconciliation" with the Taliban as an organization, Karzai is offering to deal with the Taliban all the way to the top, including Mullah Omar, the one-eyed thug and would-be caliph who holds the loyalty of many if not most Taliban insurgents.
"There are some contacts, and contacts will continue on the local, national and broader political level, but it is too eaerly to speak about the outcome of those contacts."
A possible signal of more breakthroughs to come occurred when the UN, with US support, removed five former Taliban officials, including former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, from the blacklist that placed them under sanctions. While the exact connection of these officials to the Taliban, including Mullah Omar, today is unclear, there is hope that the UN action is a step toward loosening sanctions on hundreds of other members of the Taliban, paving the way to more productive talks.
In early January, Kai Eide, the outgoing UN representative in Afghanistan—who has been all along a consistent advocate for talking to the Taliban—met with several representatives of the Taliban, although, as the New York Times reported:
Most of the important details of the meeting were unknown: exactly when and where the meeting took place; what, if anything, was agreed upon; and who represented the Taliban.
And the Times added:
American leaders have begun to search for a road that could eventually lead to a political settlement with the Taliban's leaders.
Is that true? For any talks with the Taliban to succeed, the United States will not only have to swallow the idea that top- and middle-level Taliban chiefs will be welcomed back in Afghan politics and given a share of power, but Washington will also have to put on the table a plan for withdrawing US forces from the conflict to sweeten the deal. Perhaps, President Obama's pledge to start pulling US forces out of Afghanistan by July 2011 could serve as the opening gambit to get talks with the Taliban going.
According to Arnaud de Borchgrave, the ultraconservative commentator and columnist, Obama is sending General James Jones, the national security adviser, to Pakistan to find out what kind of role Pakistan could play in ending the war. More importantly, he says that during his recent tour of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Gates came to the reluctant conclusion that ending the war means rebalancing the Afghan government in a way that takes both Indian and Pakistani interests into account, which happens to be exactly right. Says de Borchgrave:
All the talk is how to end the Afghan war, not how to win it.... For U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, just back from India and Pakistan, a power-sharing compromise in Kabul is the only way to cut short a war that no longer has the support of the American people.
The attitude of Pakistan is, and will be, crucial. Yesterday, General Kiyani, the Pakistani chief of staff—whose command and its intelligence service, the ISI, have long supported the Taliban—suggested that Pakistan might be willing to train Afghan security forces in order to help stabilize the country. Reading the intentions of the Pakistani army and ISI are difficult, since they are notorious liars, but it just might be that Kiyani is making a serious offer here. If Pakistan does engage in training Afghan forces, it might create a dynamic in which Pakistan needs to rely less on the Taliban for influence in Afghanistan, and thus Pakistan might be willing to coax the Taliban, or parts of it, to the bargaining table.
Kiyani, speaking to reporters, said:
"We want to have strategic depth in Afghanistan, but that does not imply controlling it. If we have a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan, automatically we will have our strategic depth because our western border will be secure, and we will not be looking at two fronts."
His offer to train Afghan forces is "being considered by US and Afghan officials," according to the Times, which added that "Kiyani's offer appeared to be in part driven by a desire to limit the influence in Afghanistan of India." Well, duh.