Talking with the Taliban: Obama Draws Skepticism

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Taliban fighters on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul.

Seeking alliances with more moderate Taliban elements against al-Qaeda is not a new idea in the Afghanistan-Pakistan context, but until now it has typically drawn a skeptical response from U.S. officials who regularly cast doubt on the wisdom of Pakistan's pursuing such agreements. So the news last weekend that President Barack Obama was entertaining the same idea, to reverse what he described as a war in Afghanistan that the U.S. was losing, was greeted with some raised eyebrows in the region. However, his suggestion was welcomed by Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, who has been advocating a similar approach for some time. "This is approval of our previous stance, and we accept and praise it," Karzai said on Sunday. But Karzai's own exhortations to the Taliban to come to the negotiating table have always carried an air of desperation (in the context of the militants' steady advances across much of the country), while his authority doesn't extend much beyond the capital. And Karzai's proposals have been vague over how what is fundamentally a power struggle could be resolved through talks. Those are just some of the problems identified by skeptics of Obama's latest proposal.

Obama has authorized the deployment of 17,000 U.S. troops to reinforce the NATO mission currently struggling to contain the Taliban's advance. That's only half the number requested by U.S. commanders there; the President is awaiting the completion of a strategy review (the third since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001) before committing to a new plan. And his comments on Saturday, in an interview with the New York Times, suggest that reconciliation with elements of the Taliban may be a key part of that strategy. For many observers on the ground, however, proposing negotiations and compromises while the Taliban is militarily in an ascendancy sounds like capitulation. (See pictures from the front lines of the war against the Taliban.)

Nobody has defined a negotiation strategy in as much as determining what would constitute a Taliban moderate and what they would be asked to reconcile much less considered, given the balance of power on the ground, what the U.S. and its Afghan allies would have to concede in order to get a deal that would make a difference. The model for Obama's suggestion, of course, is Iraq, where the U.S. managed to pacify Anbar province by recruiting most of the local Sunni sheiks, who had previously been part of the insurgency, to wage a common fight against al-Qaeda. But Obama admitted that the Iraq strategy is hardly an easy fit. "The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex [than Iraq]," he said. "You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes ... [which] sometimes operate at cross-purposes. And so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge."

Indeed, far more of a challenge than Obama even acknowledged. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was led by foreign jihadists, making it easier for the U.S. to turn locals against the organization, particularly when they chafed under al-Qaeda's imposition of strict Islamic law. But in Afghanistan — particularly in the south, where the insurgency is strongest — the militants are natives. In Iraq, an established and functioning government could offer sheiks who switched sides a credible alternative center of power, whereas in Afghanistan, the government is generally perceived to be corrupt, weak and unable to provide security. In Iraq, moreover, the strategy depended less on the willingness of the insurgents to change their minds on the new order in Iraq than on the ability of the U.S. to buy them off in exchange for temporary cooperation against a common foe. But in Afghanistan, the ethnic political coordinates and the political consequences of accommodating the insurgency may be substantially different.

The Taliban is predominately based among Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. Increasing Pashtun power in government would exacerbate ethnic tensions in the capital and in the relatively stable north, where Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara groups that helped Karzai into power are in the majority. Success in Iraq, moreover, was based on the presence of security forces numbering some 600,000 troops and police officers (Iraqi and foreign), whereas in Afghanistan, which is larger both in land mass and population, there are only 160,000 troops. The moderate Sunni insurgents in Iraq could be confident that they would be protected if they switched sides, but NATO forces in Afghanistan would not be in a position to offer the same guarantees to Taliban-aligned warlords who change their allegiance, making such defections less likely.

"We should identify what are the limits of the concessions the government is willing to give," says Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, a former Finance Minister who is now running against Karzai for President. "Probably they will have some demands of their own, and we might have to be more accepting of those demands, like increased cultural conservatism. But if they say, 'We will not accept a leadership based on elections,' I am not sure we can accept that."

Many ordinary Afghans who loathe the Taliban favor negotiations in the hopes of reversing the deteriorating security situation. "We've had 30 years of war, and fighting has not provided the solution, so now we have to try negotiations," says Ahmedzai, an employee at an international-development agency. But that's an option born of despair. "We hate the Taliban, but we also hate the suicide bombings," says 18-year-old student Hekmatullah Hekmat. "In order to have a peaceful, stable Afghanistan, we must negotiate." But Hekmat adds that if the price of peace is a return to the social strictures of the Taliban era, "I will run away to Pakistan — all of the Afghans will."

And many in Kabul who have embraced the freedoms won by the invasion raise a moral argument against making concessions to the Taliban. "Are you going to sacrifice the hard-won freedoms of 29 million people for the sake of a few hundred thousand militants?" asks a Kabul-based businessman who declined to use his name for fear of repercussions. "That just opens up the floodgates to anyone who wants to have a stake in power. All he has to do is just go and be as violent as possible; kill a couple of people, and there will be some sort of concessions made and he can come into power." Like the businessman, many Afghans fear that Obama's proposal heralds the onset of a policy aimed at withdrawing from the quagmire rather than helping Afghanistan to its feet. "Basically, it means that suddenly you have capitulated on your core fundamental principles for the sake of a few weeks of peace and getting out of here," the businessman says. But given the direction of the war, many in Washington, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have begun to bluntly argue that setting up a state in Afghanistan based on the core principles the U.S. holds dear may be a bridge too far.

See pictures of a jihadist's journey.