Karzai and Obama: Whose Strategy for Afghan Endgame?

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Ahmad Masood / REUTERS

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, March 28, 2010

Even if Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai have moved beyond their recent public mutual recriminations, their White House meeting on Wednesday will take place against a backdrop of tension over strategy. Everyone in Afghanistan and its neighboring countries knows that the endgame in that country's eight-year conflict is already under way — and that its conclusion will involve a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. But the terms and timing of such a settlement are anything but settled, and it appears that Karzai is more inclined to begin immediate direct and far-reaching negotiations with the senior leadership of the insurgency than are his U.S. backers.

Karzai has reportedly already been conducting discreet negotiations in Gulf countries with representatives of the Taliban leadership, but those talks can't go anywhere without the active support of the U.S. That's because the insurgents' key demand for making peace is that foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan. There's little point in the Taliban talking to Karzai unless he is able to negotiate on the understanding that the U.S. is willing to go along with a peace deal that will eventually require its withdrawal.

Karzai's problem is that the Obama Administration has made little indication that it supports negotiating a peace agreement with the insurgent leadership at this stage. On the contrary, General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, insists that the Taliban won't make an acceptable deal until it has been disabused, through painful combat experience, of its belief that it can prevail on the battlefield. And as to what the U.S. considers an acceptable deal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week made clear that the U.S. would insist on the Taliban accepting conditions that its leaders would probably consider surrender: a renunciation of violence and the acceptance of the Afghan constitution and its provisions on the rights of women and other democratic measures adopted after the U.S. had toppled the Taliban regime.

In short, while the U.S. and Karzai both talk of reconciliation, Washington's emphasis right now is that the effort should be confined to reconcilable Taliban foot soldiers who it believes can be easily bought off with offers of jobs and security. Karzai's government will soon unveil a detailed plan to effect such reintegration effort at ground level, although it clearly also favors direct talks with those the U.S. would not necessarily deem reconcilable. But the focus of U.S.-led efforts on the ground will be pouring troops into Kandahar, erstwhile spiritual capital of the Taliban, hoping to demonstrate in the movement's heartland that the Taliban cannot win the war.

While Washington maintains a vision of clearing the Taliban out of Kandahar and allowing good governance and the delivery of security and services to win loyalty to the government's side, the signs are clear that the local population does not want a U.S. surge; it wants the war to end. Last month, in an effort to build local support for the planned offensive, President Karzai — with McChrystal present — held a consultative shura with tribal elders from the Kandahar area. Instead of endorsing the planned military operation, reports from the meeting said the local leaders warned against escalating the fight and called instead for negotiations. That would simply have confirmed the view McChrystal would have seen in a survey of public opinion in the Kandahar area commissioned by the U.S. military, in which locals by a margin of 19 to 1 favored talks with the Taliban over continued fighting. It's not that the locals necessarily support the Taliban; they simply want an end to a war they believe will bring only suffering and no conclusion.

In pressing for talks with the Taliban leadership, then, President Karzai may simply be channeling war-weary Afghan public opinion, which appears to favor a more rapid political settlement — perhaps with more political compromises — than the one Washington had envisaged. Karzai plans to hold a nationwide peace jirga among Afghan leaders later this month, after postponing it for his Washington visit. Such a forum might well push for a negotiated solution with the Taliban, and Karzai will hope to clarify Washington's position before he stages that consultation.

Some reports have suggested that Karzai is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of clarity from Washington as to how a political solution could be achieved in Afghanistan. But even if there was strategic clarity on the issue in the Obama Administration, backing talks with the Taliban leadership remains a very tricky call. The domestic political climate facing President Obama militates against him being seen to be making peace with the Taliban. Pakistan, which has been at the center of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan over the past eight years, is determined to shape the outcome in a way that restores much of the influence it lost in Kabul when the Taliban, its erstwhile proxy, was defeated by the U.S. and its allies. Its unprecedented arrest earlier this year of key Taliban leader Mullah Baradar was widely interpreted as signaling the Pakistani security establishment's insistence on playing a major role in any negotiation process — Baradar had reportedly been negotiating quietly with Karzai.

The U.S. is also stepping up pressure on Pakistan to launch a new offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in North Waziristan, whence the failed bombing of Times Square is suspected to have originated. That pressure was vividly illustrated by Secretary of State Clinton's charge in a TV interview on Tuesday that there are people in Pakistan's government "who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill those who attacked us on 9/11."

Many of Washington's NATO allies are skeptical of McChrystal's surge strategy, and increasingly desperate to end a war as unpopular in their own countries as it is among many ordinary Afghans. So, while the Administration might like to couch the conversation with Karzai in terms of his need to make some fateful decisions on issues like corruption, the Afghan leader may be telling his sponsors that it is time for them to answer some uncomfortable questions on how the conflict is plausibly going to end.