Vice President Biden, at NATO, had an interchange with reporters on the issue of talking to the Taliban. In it, he suggested -- citing Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy -- that only 5 percent of the Taliban is "incorrigible."
More important, he raised the idea of making "concessions" to the insurgents, though he refused to speculate on what they might be.
Here's a partial transcript:
Q Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Over the weekend, President Obama opened the door, said that he would possibly talk to and create alliances with moderate Taliban in Afghanistan. How much of a factor meets -- how many moderate Taliban are there, and is it enough to make a difference there? And what kind of concessions would the U.S. consider giving them?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, let me just say -- and to paraphrase Secretary Holbrooke, our Special Envoy, and I agree with his assessment after numerous visits to the region and throughout the country -- 5 percent of the Taliban is incorrigible, not susceptible to anything other than being defeated. Another 25 percent or so are not quite sure, in my view, the intensity of their commitment to the insurgency. And roughly 70 percent are involved because of the money, because of them being -- getting paid.
To state the obvious, as you know, the Taliban, most of whom are Pashtun -- you have 60 percent of the Pashtun population in Pakistan; only 40 percent live in Afghanistan. The objectives that flow from Kandahar may be different than Quetta, may be different than the FATA. So it's worth exploring.
The idea of what concessions would be made is well beyond the scope of my being able to answer, except to say that whatever is initiated will have to be ultimately initiated by the Afghan government, and will have to be such that it would not undermine a legitimate Afghan government. But I do think it is worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state.
Q To continue on this same subject, what kind of negotiation could we have with moderate Talibans? And is the British experience on this matter useful for NATO and for you? And then, Mr. -- President Obama said this weekend also that we're not winning the war in Afghanistan. I would like to have your analysis on this.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, I think the President is accurate; we are not now winning the war, but the war is far from lost -- number one. Number two, with regard to the experience, it is different, but not wholly different. We engaged in Iraq the most extreme elements of the Sunni resistance in Anbar Province. We ended up with an operation called the Sons of Iraq, because we accurately determined, as some of us had pointed out in numerous visits there, that the idea that every Sunni was a supporter of -- every Sunni insurgent was a supporter of al Qaeda was simply not true -- simply not true.
The same principle pertains here. Whether or not it will bear as much fruit remains to be seen. There's only one way, and that is to engage -- engage in the process, looking for pragmatic solutions to accomplishing what our goal is; that is an Afghanistan that is, at minimum goal, is not a haven for terror and is able to sustain itself on its own and provide its own security.
What's required in the end is a fundamental shift in Afghanistan toward greater participation by the majority, or near-majority, ethnic Pashtuns in the government, along with significant concessions in the direction of conservative Islamic values that may not sit well with many Western liberals and Westernized Afghans. As one of President Karzai's erstwhile political rivals put it:
"We should identify what are the limits of the concessions the government is willing to give," says Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the former Minister of Finance now running against Karzai for president. "Probably they will have some demands of their own, and we might have to be more accepting of those demands, like increased cultural conservatism. But if they say we will not accept a leadership based on elections I am not sure we can accept that."
That's pretty much the bottom line. The Taliban, as Biden said, will have to agree not to allow Al Qaeda to reestablish itself so that Afghanistan is "not a haven for terror," and it will have to accept some form of democracy, with elections, though probably a highly deecentralized one.