Trusting the Taliban

Can we negotiate with the Taliban? Or should we focus on strengthening the Karzai government?

The Obama administration is expected to unveil the results of its interagency review of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan later this week, and certainly before the March 31 international conference on Afghanistan that will be held in The Hague.

Hopefully, this document will begin to set some priorities-for what is absolutely essential for the United States and its allies to achieve versus those matters which might be preferable but not absolutely required.

There are two directions that U.S. policy can move in. The first, supported by many of the officials of the Afghan central government, is for the United States and its partners to focus on building up the capacity of the state-and to commit the time, energy and resources necessary over the next several years. Some of the features of this approach, as outlined by Chris Brose, include deploying military forces primarily to train Afghan troops "rather than conduct raids that alienate us from the population" and to "make Afghanistan's ministries the vehicle for delivering development assistance, rather than working around them through Western contractors, as we mostly do now." It also means pursuing a "regional compact" with all of Afghanistan's neighbors "over the nature of influence that all would have in Afghanistan"-which would mean acknowledging, among others, Iran's and Russia's interests.

Yet, the reaction coming from some sectors in Europe after the recent visit of Vice President Joe Biden, seems to indicate that the U.S. approach may become much more reductionist in nature.

AFP quoted a senior French official on background as saying, following the consultations: "We are lowering our ambitions. The Americans are now looking for a way out, they no longer regard Afghanistan as strategic. It'll take two to five years, but we're in a logic of disengagement." [Emphasis added.]

This strategy focuses on trying to reach deals with so-called "moderate" Taliban-usually defined as Pashtun and others who want to be able to impose most of their strict social code on their own areas but are generally uninterested in supporting al-Qaeda or trying to spread extreme Islamism in other parts of the world. It also hopes that a series of military truces can allow development work to be restarted, particularly in the countryside; and that, in turn, the perverse set of incentives that drove Afghanistan to become the world's largest producer of opium can be reduced.

The worst possible outcome, of course, would be to adopt the goals of the first strategy with the resources associated with the second-that we can effectively state-build in Afghanistan while providing the troops and material that would be associated with a disengagement strategy.

Both of these strategies, however, rely on factors that are beyond Washington's control-and require the new administration to make a series of tough judgment calls. The state-building strategy assumes that the Afghan central government and its political figures are sincere in their desire to rebuild the country, but have been crippled largely by a lack of support. This approach is also predicated on the critical calculation that it is possible to construct and train a truly Afghan "national" army that will battle extremists and separatists, crack down on regional warlords and do a better job at providing security for "ordinary Afghans."

The second strategy gambles that there is such a thing as "moderate Taliban" who are prepared to compromise, and that the majority of those fighting the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are fighting against "foreign occupation" and not in defense of a militant ideology. It rests its case for success on the belief that it would be possible to reach meaningful, enforceable agreements with these factions.

So who do we trust? The Afghan officials who are coming through Washington, urging us to commit to the first strategy? The "moderates" in Saudi Arabia telling us the second approach is feasible? And does it help or hinder the second approach that the brother of President Hamid Karzai, Qayum Karzai, endorses talks-even as he is accused of being a major figure in the country's drug trade? But our British allies appear to also support talks, with Foreign Secretary David Miliband calling for a "reconciliation tsar." And our own defense secretary, Bob Gates, has begun to lay down the minimally-acceptable criteria-ex-Taliban required to accept the authority of the Kabul government, and "no Taliban insurgents" in the capital itself.

So is the second strategy the direction we will endorse? We'll know by the end of the month.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.