At a critical time in the Afghanistan war, attention has again turned to the direction of U.S. strategy there, driven by revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars,” about the fierce debate within the White House. As conditions now deteriorate rapidly on the ground, the United States cannot defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The realities of the war should dictate a political approach. But Washington’s false hope for future success—drawing erroneous parallels with the Iraqi surge, for example—prevents it from making the right decision. With no military solution at hand, the only option is to start talking with the insurgents. Waiting is only likely to diminish any chance of success.
The current counterinsurgency campaign shows little signs of accomplishing its mission. The surge is not enough to reverse the Taliban’s gains, or the quick decline of the Karzai government. Pakistan’s lack of support makes the Taliban sanctuary there a major strategic problem.
More troops and the latest strategy have failed to make progress. The war is not conclusive in the south — where stabilization could take years—and the Taliban is gaining momentum in the north.
Instead of being able to begin a withdrawal next summer, the United States could be forced to add more troops just to hold ground and compensate for our allies’ progressive withdrawal. Never mind turning back the Taliban’s gains.
As the Taliban increases its sway across the country, it will be less open to negotiating. Far from using the surge to break the Taliban’s resolve, and reintegrating them into the Afghan forces, the insurgents are likely to make fewer concessions as time goes by.
The Obama administration should use the December strategic review of the war to reverse course. It’s time to start talking.
To start, the Western coalition should propose a cease-fire this winter. This break in fighting would allow negotiations to begin. Instead of including all players, the talks should first include only the United States (representing the coalition), the Taliban, members of the Afghan government and Pakistani military.
Some argue that negotiations should exclusively go through President Hamid Karzai— but he is no longer a reliable partner. It would not be a good idea to let Karzai and his entourage take charge of negotiations. The United States must be at the table to protect its own interests in Afghanistan: the removal of Al Qaeda operatives and its camps.
Involving Pakistan could be contentious. But the talks are unlikely to succeed otherwise. The West can here use the Pakistani military’s links to the Taliban to its advantage -- rather than pushing ineffectively for Islamabad to sever the connections. If Pakistan loses its influence over the Taliban now, it will be at the expense of the United States.
The importance of involving Pakistan was evident in February, when Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s operational commander and second-ranking official under Mullah Muhammad Omar, was arrested in Karachi. The Western press first heralded this as a sign of Islamabad’s new-found resolve against terrorism and the Taliban. In fact, his arrest was carried out to end secret contacts between Baradar and Kabul that had sidelined Pakistan.
What are sure to be long and fraught negotiations will need to accomplish two things. First, a coalition government that includes Taliban leaders needs to be agreed to and put in place. This is likely to help Afghans begin finding compromises on a series of issues -- notably a new constitution.
Second, the parties also need to establish security guarantees for the West and India. Jihadist groups must not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base.
As talks move forward, the number of foreign troops that remain in the country will need to be discussed. Ideally, there could be an agreement to keep a few thousand coalition troops, to strike radical groups looking to come back to Afghanistan.
After a broad-based coalition government is in place, a larger international conference involving all the key players in Afghanistan—including India, Iran and Saudi Arabia—could help bring in political backing and financial support for the new rulers.
Making a deal with the Taliban is not ideal -- particularly with the group’s dismal human rights record. But negotiating now—when concessions are still possible—is the best hope for securing protections for the Afghan people, particularly women and religious and ethnic minorities.
Talking is the best path forward. If the United States starts now, it can work. Washington cannot afford—in lives or in treasure—to devote more time to a failing military strategy in Afghanistan. The longer Washington delays, the stronger the Taliban is likely to become.
Now’s the time to act.