Reaching a Consensus on the Taliban

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The scene in the White House Rose Garden Wednesday evening didn't bode well. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who had been sniping at each other over border security with increasing rancor, stood stiffly and unsmiling on either side of President Bush. But once the threesome, plus a few senior aides, sat down to a dinner of sea bass, autumnal veggies and pumpkin cake, says one American official present, "It went actually better than I thought it might. No crockery broken. Stretcher bearers were not called in."

"It was cordial, it was friendly," agrees Afghan ambassador Said T. Jawad. "There were a few tense moments but overall it was very constructive."

The "working dinner" was scheduled for an hour but went on for close to three hours as each leader expounded on his views. The major bone of contention was not Osama bin Laden. According to a senior U.S. official, in the view of both U.S. and Afghan officials, Pakistani security forces official were moving aggressively to search out and capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders. After all, as one senior U.S. official based in the region pointed out, bin Laden and his inner circle are Arabs and don't enjoy the loyalty of the predominantly Pashtun tribesmen who inhabit the harsh climes along the border. But Karzai contends — and top Bush administration officials concur — that Taliban leaders have found sanctuary in Pakistan. Karzai argued, according to Jawad, that "as long as extremism finds some kind of support in the region, it will be very difficult and costly to defeat it."

According to both U.S. and Pakistani officials, Musharraf agreed to mount a more aggressive campaign against Taliban strongholds in the Pakistani tribal areas. But Pakistani Ambassador Mahmud Al Durrani says that Musharraf also stated that force alone would not solve the Taliban problem. Musharraf said, according to Durrani, that "you have to win the hearts and minds of the people" because the "overwhelming majority" of the insurgent fighters are poor, footloose young men who are "not totally committed to terrorism" and can be persuaded to change sides if offered economic and educational opportunities.

Bush moderated the discussion, several of those present said, using humor to lighten the mood and pushing both sides to recognize their common ground, not brood on their differences. He pressed them to translate their mutual interests into pragmatic, tactical cooperation on the ground. His message, says Jawad, was: "We're all fighting the same fight, the same enemy for all three of us. How can we create a synergy and do it together?"

The result was agreement on two concrete initiatives:

— Convene two "loya jirga," meaning "grand councils," of tribal leaders, one on either side of the border, where Karzai and Musharraf would appear together and make a joint pitch for help against the Taliban. "President Karzai feels that tribal leadership is an effective an tool in fighting extremism because a significant number of them have been killed by these young extremist zealots," says Jawad.

— Expand real-time sharing of intelligence about positions and movements of terrorists and insurgents. "Intelligence sharing needs to be sped up so you don't get information which is two weeks old and is not actionable," says Durrani.

Musharraf and Karzai left Washington with the details to be worked out among their aides. No dates for the tribal councils have yet been set. Nor has the intelligence sharing initiative been fleshed out.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials acknowledge that the problem of rooting out the Taliban insurgency is now seen to be far more time-consuming, expensive and complex than was originally envisioned. Even well-meaning tribal leaders are not likely to cooperate with an anti-insurgency drive that leaves their villages vulnerable to Taliban reprisals and infiltration.

"There's this huge craving for security after all these years," says the U.S. official. For that reason, U.S. officials acknowledge privately that Afghanistan will need "substantial" infusions of U.S. and international aid for the better part of the next decade to finance construction of roads, power plants and other essential infrastructure, to expand and equip the Afghan military with armor and heavier weapons and especially to expand, equip and train Afghan police forces and home guards to fend off Taliban attacks in rural areas.

U.S. officials say the biggest challenge the U.S. and Afghan governments face is preventing Taliban forces from terrorizing remote villages. "That's why we have to build a larger police force and why we're going to find more auxiliaries in static defense, because you have to secure population," says a senior U.S. diplomat. "You can't secure population classically with your mobile forces and your main army units, or they cease to be a combat force and become tied down in defensive garrisons. And the enemy chooses where they want to have attacks."

"Some of these things have taken us a while to understand," says the diplomat, "but it is now clear that we're going to be at this for a very long time. You're talking about a country that is so ruined that you could build infrastructure for 10 years and probably get to where you started on the Marshall plan."