The United States may have turned a corner in Afghanistan, but it’s not a military one. There are no signs that the Afghan war, now in its tenth year, is being won on the ground. But after long resisting the idea of direct talks with the Taliban leadership, sometime over the summer, the Obama administration reversed course. ‘This is the way you end insurgencies,’ said General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, who confirmed that the US-NATO coalition helped facilitate travel back and forth between Pakistan and Kabul by ‘senior Taliban commanders.’
According to press reports, the talks—held in Kabul and in Dubai—involved representatives of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council based in Quetta, Pakistan. Other reports said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government had also held face-to-face talks with a second major component of the insurgency, the militant group led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, based in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas. And earlier this year, a delegation from the third major faction, the Hizb-i Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, visited Kabul with a 15-point peace plan.
With Obama’s July 2011 deadline for the start of a US drawdown of forces in Afghanistan just nine months away, it appears that the United States is now actively exploring the possibility of a deal with Afghanistan’s armed opposition. The decision to talk reflects growing pessimism in Washington that the tripling of US forces over the past 18 months will succeed in its goal of ‘degrading’ the Taliban-led insurgency.
In fact, that very deadline might work as an incentive to bring the Taliban to the table, since the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan has long been the Taliban’s principal demand. Indeed, when Hekmatyar’s delegation visited Kabul, his spokesman averred that the July drawdown could serve as a starting point for talks about a US and NATO withdrawal.
Previously, the administration argued that the Taliban wouldn’t come to the table unless it felt that it was losing the war, and it designed a strategy to deliver punishing blows to the insurgency in order to convince its leaders that they’d have to accept US terms for ending the conflict. The administration supported only ‘reintegration,’ that is, the defection of low- and mid-level insurgent leaders to the Afghan government on a district-by-district basis. But it opposed ‘reconciliation,’ meaning a political accord with the most senior leaders of the overall Taliban movement, including the Quetta Shura leadership. Now, that’s changed.
Since 2009, Karzai has vociferously supported reconciliation, especially since an initiative he launched at a conference in London in January of this year in which he promised to reach out directly to the Taliban. Karzai’s initiative caught the United States off guard, and during the first half of this year the Obama administration clashed sharply with Karzai over the idea of talking to the Taliban. But Karzai persisted, convening a peace jirga last summer and then, in September, appointing a 70-member High Peace Council, led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, to seek a deal.
Because all three components of the insurgency—the Taliban, the Haqqani group and Hizb-i Islami—have links to Pakistan and to its all-powerful military intelligence service, the ISI, it’s widely expected that Pakistan will play a make-or-break role in any deal that emerges with the Taliban. In February, during an earlier round of preliminary talks between Karzai and Taliban officials, Pakistan bluntly intervened, arresting Mullah Baradur, the No. 2 Taliban commander, who was involved in behind-the-scenes talks with Kabul. Those talks, apparently, took place without Pakistan’s imprimatur. But since then, Karzai has accommodated Pakistan, holding a series of crucial talks with Pakistan’s army commander and the chief of the ISI. And, over US objections, Karzai fired his own chief of intelligence and his minister of the interior because of their fierce opposition to Karzai’s pro-Pakistan tilt.
Gilles Dorronsoro, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, argues that it’s precisely because Pakistan has so much leverage over the Taliban, for now at least, that the Pakistani military and the ISI can bring the Taliban to the table. ‘We should be happy that somebody has leverage over the Taliban,’ he says. ‘We should put the Pakistani army in the loop, because they are the only ones who can deliver the Taliban.’
Sceptics abound, of course. The talks are only getting started, and enormous obstacles remain. It isn’t clear if all (or even most) of the Taliban leaders—many of whom are zealots—would be amenable to a deal, even under intense Pakistani pressure. The Karzai government is weak, to say the least, and if it appears that Karzai is on the verge of an accord that could bring back the Taliban, the worst-case result could be the eruption of a new civil war. According to Marvin Weinbaum, a former US intelligence official at the Middle East Institute in Washington, elements of the non-Pashtun ethnic minority groups in northern Afghanistan, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban in the 1990’s, are rearming. ‘If there’s any chance that the Taliban would return, the Afghan army would break up,’ says Weinbaum.
And Obama would have to face down intense criticism, from neoconservatives, hawks and Republicans in Congress, were he to strike a deal with the Taliban. So far, however, he hasn’t retreated from his commitment to the July 2011 drawdown date, despite opposition from those same critics—and from the US military command, too, which bitterly opposed the timeline. But, according to Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, the president made it clear to the Pentagon that while he’d ordered more troops into Afghanistan in 2009, by 2011 they’d start coming out.
‘I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars,’ Woodward quotes Obama as saying last year. ‘In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, “We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.” We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change (the mission)…unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.’
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent, investigative journalist in the Washington, D.C, area, who writes frequently for The Nation, Rolling Stone, and other publications. His blog, The Dreyfuss Report, appears at TheNation.com. He is the author of ‘Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam’.