Teatime with the Taliban

UN al-Qaeda-watcher Richard Barrett thinks the time might be right for negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a New York Times op-ed, Barrett says that the increasingly aggressive allied military campaign has significantly disrupted the insurgents' capabilities. So if the military has the Taliban on the run, why sit down with them now? Because, Barrett claims, reconciliation may become impossible if the militant organization gets any more degraded—a lack of leader-to-subordinate face time has started to sap the unity of the movement. And Barrett also notes that everyone in the region is ready to hammer out an agreement for various reasons (Russia, China and Iran to stem the flow of Afghan opium through their countries, and Pakistan so it can deal with the aftermath of last summer's flooding and mop up the Pakistani Taliban). And Barrett says no one will have to worry about the nexus between the Taliban and al-Qaeda: the Taliban are "pragmatic Afghans" and part of a "nationalist movement with national objectives."

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, on the other hand, is not so sure. He writes that sitting down with militant leaders "risks turning Afghanistan into another Vietnam." He thinks negotiating with the enemy back then was just a substitute for changing an unworkable strategy, and only led to a "meaningless" agreement that North Vietnam "refused to honor" and America failed to enforce. But Afghanistan "remains eminently winnable." Offer amnesty to deserters, sure, but "high-level negotations are another story." There is only one way to win in Afghanistan, Stephens says (after claiming that the Taliban would not only steal from Ho Chi Minh's negotiating playbook, but Sinn Fein's and Kim Jong Il's, too) and that is "a series of decisive military blows that give them no other option."

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius thinks U.S. commander General David Petraeus is trying to have it both ways. He's "shooting more" but also "talking more." And "Petraeus and his advisers have come up with an ingenious" way to "finesse" that problematic timeline for withdrawal, which starts next July (and gives the Taliban, Petraeus reportedly worries, hope that they can wait out U.S. forces). Ignatius says that the general is pushing NATO to sign off on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's proposal to set 2014 as the deadline for transferring security to Afghan forces—effectively "adding three years to the clock."