America went to war in 2001 to rid Afghanistan not only of al-Qaeda but also of an extremist Taliban regime that viciously abused its own people. But as the international community prepares to gather in London on Thursday to plot an endgame for the eight-year conflict, it is becoming increasingly clear that the war will end with the Taliban being restored to some measure of power. Indeed, the strategic purpose of President Obama's troop surge now appears primarily to be setting the table for an acceptable compromise with the Taliban.
Speaking in Pakistan on Jan. 22, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the Taliban as part of Afghanistan's "political fabric," dispelling any notion that the movement no matter how noxious can be eliminated by force of arms. And General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander on the ground, told the Financial Times in an interview published on Monday that "a political solution ... is the inevitable outcome" and "the right outcome" of the surge of 30,000 new U.S. troops into Afghanistan this year. "As a soldier," McChrystal said, "my personal feeling is that there's been enough fighting. What I think we do is try to shape conditions which allow people to come to a truly equitable solution to how the Afghan people are governed."
Centcom commander General David Petraeus weighed in on the question of a political settlement in the Times of London on Monday, warning that before a political resolution could be achieved, there would be some intense fighting to roll back the Taliban and disabuse them of the prospect of a battlefield victory. And Gates has made clear that the movement's leadership is unlikely to negotiate a compromise until it has been dealt some heavy blows on the battlefield. Still, Petraeus suggested, current outreach efforts that are limited to those Taliban willing to lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution could eventually give way to direct talks with the Taliban leadership, possibly involving Pakistan.
All roads, in other words, point to a negotiated settlement.
This emerging consensus stems in part from the realization of what Pakistan can do and is willing to do in the fight. The Pakistani military reiterated during Gates' visit last week that it has no intention of going after the Afghan insurgent sanctuaries in North Waziristan. The Pakistanis claimed that their forces were overstretched by their offensives against the Pakistan Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan and that a new offensive is beyond their capability.
While the Pakistani military is willing to fight those extremists who challenge the Pakistani state's authority, it is more inclined to view the Afghan Taliban as a potential strategic ally and asset. And dozens of visits from U.S. officials over the past year have failed to persuade Pakistan to adopt Washington's view that the Afghan Taliban are a menace to Pakistan. Instead, Pakistan continues to see its primary security challenge as emanating from India, which it views as the power behind the Karzai government in Afghanistan. So right now, the Afghan Taliban and associated Afghan insurgent groups based in Pakistan are seen as Pakistan's best hope for rolling back Indian influence and regaining some of the strategic influence lost when the Taliban were routed in 2001.
Instead of trying to crush the Taliban as the U.S. had hoped it would, Pakistan is talking to the movement's leaders and urging Washington to do the same. Pakistan hopes to orchestrate a political settlement in which the Taliban and other Pakistan-friendly Pashtuns would be given far greater influence in a new regime but would agree to share power with other communities and cut ties with al-Qaeda.
And the language from U.S. officials in recent weeks suggests that some version of Pakistan's perspective may prevail. The Karzai government has also been discreetly reaching out to the Taliban leadership for some time, and U.N. officials in Kabul are openly calling for such talks, urging the Afghan government to enable them by having the names of a number of senior Taliban leaders taken off a U.N. terrorist-watch list so they can travel. Turkey is even offering to broker regional peace talks involving the Taliban and Afghanistan's neighbors.
Still, it won't be that simple. Currently, the U.S. and the Afghan government are offering to deal with those Taliban willing to reconcile with the current political order, and it's not clear that there are going to be many takers. And the Taliban leadership has demands of its own: while Mullah Omar has lately been promising that a Taliban regime would not threaten the security of any other state in the world (translation: no sanctuary for al-Qaeda), he and those around him insist that there can be talks only when Western armies agree to leave Afghanistan. And, of course, the Taliban leaders believe they have the wind at their backs, while the U.S. is reaching for an exit strategy. U.S. officials insist the insurgents won't be interested in compromise as long as they believe they can win on the battlefield.
However, some analysts, such as the Pakistan-based veteran journalist and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid, believe that the Taliban may be ready for a power-sharing deal because they recognize the limits of their insurgency: while they can prevent Karzai from governing most of the country, U.S. firepower can prevent them from taking control too. Moreover, he argues, the safe havens they enjoy in Pakistan may actually make them vulnerable to political pressure for compromise from the Pakistani military. And many in the region doubt that the U.S. and its allies would be willing to accept the burden of an open-ended military commitment at a rising cost in blood and treasure.
Even if a growing consensus holds that a political solution is inevitable, the fighting is likely to intensify over the next year. But it will be, fundamentally, a contest over the terms under which the Taliban are to resume a role in governing Afghanistan, not over whether they will play any role at all.