Talking to the Taliban

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged yesterday that Washington has been participating in talks with the Taliban. For a few weeks now, he said, “there's been outreach on the part of a number of countries, including the United States.” Though preliminary, the discussions, which are led by the State Department, are an attempt to find some sort of political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan as U.S. troops get ready to start pulling out of the country. But this certainly isn’t a quick solution. “My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter,” Gates noted.

The outgoing defense secretary wasn’t the first one to break the news about reconciliation talks. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was back on the anti-coalition warpath on Saturday when he said Washington was talking to the Taliban. He also lambasted the United States for only being in Afghanistan to pursue its own self-interested goals and complained about the environmental damage U.S. weapons are doing to the country.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry didn’t like the sound of that. Though he refrained from mentioning Karzai directly, Eikenberry did hint that if such criticism continued, support for the Afghan government and the war could dwindle quickly: “When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on.”

Gates also warned yesterday that a “seriously weakened” al-Qaeda could break apart in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden. He wondered whether the new Number One, Ayman al-Zawahri, would have the chops to keep al-Qaeda united, or whether various groups would split off from the main movement, becoming “essentially regional terrorist groups that are more focused on regional targets.” It’s just too early to tell.

Back at home, it seems certain that legislators will not make the July 2 deadline for coming to an agreement on trimming the budget deficit. The group, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, is trying to make $4 trillion worth of cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.