Paul Pillar

Embrace the Talks

 The story in the Washington Post about preliminary talks between the Afghan Taliban and President Hamid Karzai is encouraging news in two respects.  The first is that the talks are going on at all and reportedly involve Taliban representatives authorized to speak for the principal Taliban element, the Quetta Shura led by Mohammed Omar.  The second is that, according to the Post's account, the Obama administration accepts and even welcomes this development as being the sort of political initiative that is as important as the military effort.  The talks could represent the first cut at a ticket to get the United States out of Afghanistan, in a manner palatable enough not to be derided and perhaps derailed as cut-and-run.

Uncertainties still abound, and it is not quite time to start declaring victory.  The preliminary discussions are still only talks about talks.  Despite the prominence of the Quetta Shura, there are major questions about how much of the insurgency is really being represented.  And any negotiated political order in Afghanistan that includes Taliban participation will face substantial resistance, or at least reluctance and distrust, among some other Afghan elements.  But the state of this war is such that every avenue for altering its course must be explored.  A political process that includes the Taliban is the most promising course among unpromising alternatives.

For the United States, the fundamental task right now in Afghanistan is not to try, perhaps vainly, to achieve a particular military or political outcome there.  It instead is to find a way out of this counterinsurgency, which has become far more costly than anything it is achieving in the name of U.S. security, and which has become counterproductive in terms of the original stated purpose of protecting Americans from terrorism.  The Obama administration needs to find a way to cut losses that is sufficiently palatable to be politically feasible.

The groundwork already exists for using negotiation with the Taliban as a basis for doing that.  Bargaining with Taliban leaders over integrating the movement into government represents a difference more of degree than of kind from the integration of individuals and small groups of Taliban that has been part of the counterinsurgency strategy all along.  Our leaders have already acknowledged that any solution to the Afghan problem must be political and not just military.  Most important, a date for the start of a U.S. withdrawal already has been set.  That withdrawal can be made faster and shorter rather than longer and slower without making a specific concession or abandoning a commitment.

Moreover, one of the major rationales for continuing the military campaign has been the need to soften up the Taliban and thereby change their leaders' thinking about their ability to meet their goals.  The move to the conference table can legitimately be portrayed as evidence that softening has occurred.  It can be depicted as part of a favorable and honorable conclusion of a U.S. military expedition that is now entering its tenth year.

The "Mission Accomplished" banner should be kept in storage.  But we may be a step closer to saying that American and allied troops have bravely performed their mission and have performed it long enough, and that the rest is up to the Afghans.