Can talks with the Taliban end the war in Afghanistan? If President Obama is serious about finding out, it's time to declare a cease-fire on US and NATO combat operations, halt the night raids by US Special Forces and stop the drone-fired missile attacks throughout the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.
Over the summer, after long resisting the idea of talks with Taliban leaders, the Obama administration began to support President Hamid Karzai's plan for reconciliation. Previously, the administration had argued that the Taliban would never enter into serious talks until US forces dealt them punishing blows to reverse their momentum. Now, apparently convinced the escalation ordered last year can't succeed, the United States and NATO are ferrying Taliban commanders back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan for what are described by Karzai's government as preliminary talks. "This is how you end these kinds of insurgencies," declared US commander Gen. David Petraeus.
Preliminary or not, the talks didn't come out of the blue. For several years there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban in places like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with support from Britain and France. Over the past year Karzai has insisted he'd talk to everyone from Mullah Omar, the Taliban's top chieftain, on down, and in January he caught the United States off guard by formally launching a peace initiative at a conference in London. Since then, with little or no support from the United States, Karzai has held a jirga to build domestic support for his outreach to the Taliban.
Virtually every faction of the insurgency is engaged, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party, which came to Kabul with a peace plan; the militant Haqqani network; and the Quetta Shura. It's unclear what's been accomplished and whether the contacts can lead to a formal peace process. But it is clear that a political agreement is the only way to end the war. It's encouraging that the Obama administration has abandoned its earlier stubborn refusal to facilitate such talks.
What would an accord entail? In exchange for a halt to the war, a timeline for a US withdrawal and a share of power in a rebalanced Afghan government, the Taliban could agree to end their insurgency, break all ties with Al Qaeda and negotiate a new national compact with all elements of Afghan society. That compact would have to be supported, perhaps even brokered, by the UN and the international community, and it would need strong support from Afghanistan's neighbors, especially Pakistan but also India, Iran, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian republics.
Enormous obstacles remain. First, the US military onslaught along with lethal raids by Special Forces and constant drone attacks, undermine peace talks (see Jeremy Scahill's report in this issue ). While devastating to low-level and district Taliban commanders, the offensive creates more enemies than it kills. And despite the tripling of US forces since 2009, it's clearer than ever that the war can't be won militarily. In fact, Taliban control over vast areas of Afghanistan has increased since Obama ordered the escalation.
Second, Karzai's corrupt government is a weak partner. Even if the Taliban and their allies are interested in serious negotiations, it's unclear whether Karzai can deliver. Erratic and mercurial, he has tried to cast himself as a nationalist willing to stand up to the United States: since last spring, he's threatened to join the Taliban himself, he's bitterly criticized US forces for killing civilians and he's promised to kick private military contractors out of the country, over US objections. But he's lost credibility with broad swaths of the public, especially the non-Pashtun minorities. Elements of the old Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the '90s, are reportedly rearming with support from India and the Central Asian states in anticipation of another civil war if Karzai makes a deal with the Taliban. Avoiding such a catastrophe will require intensive regional diplomacy.
Third, if Pakistan does not support talks, they will almost certainly fail. In the 1990s Pakistan created the Taliban as a tool for asserting its muscle, especially against India, and Pakistan still exerts great influence over the insurgency. An earlier round of talks foundered in February when Pakistan's intelligence service arrested nearly two dozen Taliban members who'd been in contact with Karzai, including Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's number-two official. Because Pakistan can bring all, or nearly all, of the Taliban to the bargaining table, winning its support is critical. Getting India onboard is just as important. India fears Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, and it doesn't want Afghanistan to fall under Pakistan's sway. A key goal during Obama's coming visit to India will be to enlist India's support for a deal.
As revealed in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, the president clearly wants out of Afghanistan. "I'm not doing a long-term nation-building effort. I'm not spending a trillion dollars," he declared. "I can't let this be a war without end." If Obama truly wants to end the war, the current round of talks holds great promise. The president has to order his entire team to seize the opportunity. A cease-fire would be a good way to start.