Beginning of the End in Afghanistan

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Beginning of the End in Afghanistan

With public support tumbling and politicians on all sides keen to find a way out, the Obama administration has been quietly changing tack.

For the first time since the start of the war in Afghanistan, the United States is starting to think concretely about its exit strategy. And none too soon: according to recent polling, public support for the war has fallen off a cliff since last year, with two-thirds of Americans now saying that the war is no longer worth fighting. Nearly three-quarters, meanwhile, say that they want President Barack Obama to withdraw substantial numbers of forces in July, when the president has promised to begin a drawdown.

The extent of that drawdown is still uncertain. While some administration officials have said that the withdrawal would involve only token forces—a few thousand or so—a former Pentagon official told me that the White House might take out as many as 30,000 troops between July and December. Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan, told me that the goal in the first phase is to unwind Obama’s most recent surge, taking out 30,000 troops, but that it might take as long as 12 to 18 months to complete the pullout. That would still leave about 70,000 US forces personnel in Afghanistan, whose gradual withdrawal would take until 2014, when the Afghan National Army and police are supposed to take over responsibility for security.

More important than projected troop numbers, however—after all, troop levels can be adjusted at will—is the fact that the United States is now signalling openly that it wants to focus on a political and diplomatic solution, one that involves talking to the Taliban. In a little-noticed speech to the Asia Society in New York on February 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a series of significant shifts in US policy in Afghanistan. Where previously the United States had insisted that before talks could begin, the Taliban had to accept a number of preconditions—namely, that it must renounce violence, abandon its ties to al-Qaeda, and accept the Afghanistan constitution—in her speech, Clinton made clear that these were no longer preconditions for talks but only ‘necessary outcomes of any negotiation.’

Clinton also gave her full support to ‘reconciliation’ with the armed opposition in Afghanistan, meaning a political bargain with the Taliban leadership, rather than ‘reintegration,’ which wuld entail the recruitment of low-level Taliban into pro-government ranks. ‘I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable,’ Clinton told her audience. ‘And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.’

On March 23, a high-powered task force convened by the Century Foundation released the results of a months-long study called ‘Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace,’ which called for immediate efforts to start a dialogue among all belligerents in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Significantly, Gen. Lute took part in a dinner held in Washington to announce the release of the report, and he told me that although he didn’t agree with everything in it, he and the White House had cooperated with the taskforce throughout its work.

To call the taskforce high-powered is an understatement. Its co-chairs are Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria who twice served in a crucial United Nations role in dealing with Afghanistan, and Thomas Pickering, a former US. ambassador to Russia, India, and the United Nations. Among the members of the task force are the former foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey, former senior diplomats from China and Japan, and a number of key former US officials, including James Dobbins, who was the US representative at the Bonn conference that put together the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban.

They concluded that the war has reached a stalemate, and that neither side can achieve a military victory. ‘Everybody says, there is no military solution,’ Brahimi told me. ‘Fine. What is the non-military solution? I don’t think enough has been done to find out.’ Totry to find out, Brahimi and the other taskforce members propose appointing a facilitator, backed by the United Nations, to begin making contacts with all sides in the conflict, especially the Taliban leaders in the Quetta Shura, about peace talks.

‘While some counsel holding back from negotiations until military momentum is clearly and decisively in their favour, we believe that the best moment to start a political process toward reconciliation is now,’ the report says.

To help get talks going, the taskforce calls for a series of confidence-building measures by the international community, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and the insurgents. Among those measures would be the de-listing of Taliban members from the UN sanctions list, so they can travel and meet with diplomats; the creation of an office for the Taliban outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, perhaps in Turkey, with guarantees of safe passage for Taliban leaders to travel back and forth; a ceasefire, or a series of local ceasefires; and an end to the lethal night raids by US Special Forces that have killed hundreds of Taliban leaders and commanders and to the Taliban’s campaign of murdering local officials. ‘In the case of ISAF, this could involve an end to targeting of mid-level commanders, including shadow governors, and for insurgents an end to attacks on ISAF forces with improvised explosive devices and targeting of Afghan government officials and their local supporters,’ the report says.

In this context, pulling out a significant number of US forces starting in July could signal to the Taliban that the United States isn’t seeking to occupy Afghanistan, and it might even provide the Taliban with an incentive to enter talks. ‘When we start the drawdown, the Taliban can say, “We didn’t let the surge beat us! Now we can negotiate,”’ says Larry Korb, a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington who was part of the Century Foundation taskforce. At least some members of the Taliban, along with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose Hizb-i Islami is allied to the Taliban, have suggested since last year that Obama’s plan to drawdown forces in July could serve as the starting point for talks over the insurgency’s chief demand, namely, the withdrawal of foreign forces.

In Washington, on both the left and the right, there’s growing discontent about the war. Among Democrats, there’s overwhelming sentiment behind a withdrawal, and members of the president’s party have forced a series of votes in Congress aimed at drastically limiting or defunding the US military campaign. Increasingly, those efforts have attracted support from conservative members of Congress and from conservative activists outside Congress, who are concerned not only about the unending nature of the war, but about its cost at a time when budget cuts and deficit reduction are the order of the day. Indeed, even some of the potential candidates for president in the Republican party, such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, have questioned the war in Afghanistan. ‘You go to Afghanistan, you look around and you say, “My gosh, am I in a country or on the surface of the moon”?’ Huckabee said. ‘What does the end game look like here? I can’t see a conclusion.’

If Obama does intend to begin a significant and prolonged drawdown this July, he won’t be running against a political tide. Most Americans have lost faith in the war, nearly all Democrats are opposed, and a substantial number of Republicans are lukewarm. True, there are still hawks, and Obama would have to confront the still-powerful advocates of the military’s counterinsurgency doctrine, such as Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan.

Still, according to one State Department official, while the world’s attention has been riveted on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the upheaval in the Arab world, Obama’s Afghanistan team has been doing some serious thinking.