By TONY KARON
Nine years after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, a flurry of reports this week confirm one of the worst-kept secrets of the conflict: the protagonists on all sides - and in various combinations, depending on which reports are to be believed - have begun negotiating over a political settlement. But nobody ought to hold their breath until all the parties with irons in the Afghan fire manage to forge an agreement.
History has demonstrated that the onset of negotiations does not necessarily bring an end to fighting. Often, both sides seek to reinforce their hand at the table by strengthening their position on the battlefield. For example, the U.S. and North Vietnam began negotiating an end to the Vietnam war in May of 1968; the Paris Agreement formalizing peace terms were signed by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in January of 1973; and the war only really ended in March of 1975, on terms quite different to those envisaged in the peace deal. And there are far more players with competing agendas and an ability to influence events in the Afghan theater than there ever were in Vietnam. (See photos of a civilian casualty in Afghanistan.)
It is hardly surprising, then, that the reports suggest there are multiple conversations currently underway among longtime antagonists. President Hamid Karzai's government has been meeting with representatives of the Taliban leadership in talks blessed by the movement's leader, Mullah Omar, according to the Washington Post. Earlier reports had suggested that exploratory talks between representatives of Karzai and of the Taliban leadership had been held late last year under the auspices of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. (See photos of U.S. troops deep in the Taliban heartland.)
Pakistan, mindful of its strategic interests in Kabul, will work hard to avoid being cut out of any peace deal. Last year, in a rare departure from its hands-off approach to Afghan Taliban leaders on its turf, Pakistani authorities arrested Mullah Baradar, a Taliban commander believed to have opened his own talks with Karzai. But Karzai and the U.S. are also reported by Britain's Guardian to have begun exploratory talks (indirect in the case of the U.S.) with the Haqqani network, the most feared insurgent group which remains close to the Pakistani intelligence service and which also has the strongest ties with al-Qaeda of any of the Afghan groups. A third insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also historically close to both Pakistan and Iran, has been negotiating openly with the Karzai government.
But even if everybody's suddenly talking, the formal preconditions set by the two main players preclude any serious negotiations. The Taliban says it won't talk until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan; the U.S. says the only basis for a negotiated peace is if the Taliban agrees to cut ties with al-Qaeda, lay down arms and respect Afghanistan's constitution. But each of those positions is unrealistic unless the side holding it believes the other side can be militarily vanquished. Even if it kept to President Obama's summer of 2011 deadline to begin reducing troop levels, the U.S. is not about to cut and run from Afghanistan. Still, the Taliban are reportedly open to talking on the basis of a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Similarly, while a number of reports suggest Taliban leaders are willing to prevent al-Qaeda operating from Afghanistan, they're unlikely to lay down arms and embrace the Afghan constitution. That constitution, after all, was negotiated largely under NATO auspices at the Bonn conference in 2002; the Taliban had no say in it. And they're hardly likely to lay down their arms and adopt it - in other words, to surrender - when they believe, not without good reason, that they're winning the war. (Is the U.S.-Pakistan border spat crippling the Afghanistan campaign?)
While Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, has revealed that many in the Obama Administration concur with most U.S. allies in Afghanistan that the war cannot be won, General David Petraeus and others in the military still believe that the balance of forces can be made more favorable through a counterinsurgency strategy. The Taliban, they argue, will only be ready to settle on terms acceptable to the U.S. if it is pummeled to standstill. Until then, reconciliation efforts should focus on reintegrating Taliban elements willing to change sides.
So, while everyone in Washington accepts the need to combine military action in Afghanistan with peace talks, where they place the emphasis in that combination - and the terms they set for such talks - will be settled in the Administration's ongoing debate. While President Obama has ordered a review of Afghanistan strategy at the end of 2010, the expected surge of the G.O.P. in November's election and the prospect of his own reelection campaign may restrain the President from picking a fight with his top general - indeed, by Woodward's account, the President ducked such a battle last year, when he was politically far stronger than he is now.
The Taliban, to the extent that one can talk of it as a single entity, is also likely divided on the question. The most powerful element of the insurgency currently is the Haqqani network, which operates independently of the Quetta-based leadership of Mullah Omar. Hekmatyar, who has historically had relations with both Pakistan and Iran, has proven the most amenable thus far of insurgent commanders. Reports on the purported Pakistani-Saudi mediated talks suggest that the Taliban is ready to break with al-Qaeda and to accept some form of power-sharing, although the insurgent movement is unlikely to have a single coherent approach to these questions.
President Karzai has established a High Peace Commission to reach out to the Taliban, a move pilloried by his many political critics in Kabul because of the heavy presence in the commission of warlords who have been the Taliban's most ferocious opponents. But Karzai may be operating from the assumption that peace with the Taliban will need buy-in from precisely those longtime enemies of the Taliban in the north of the country who have threatened a civil war if Karzai agrees to share any power with their hated foe.
At the onset of President Bush's Afghan war nine years ago, Pakistan had been holding out for a different scenario: a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan without al-Qaeda. And while it may have given up on the prospect of restoring a Taliban monopoly on power, it certainly aims to restore the influence of its Pashtun allies in Kabul and curb that of its chief rival, India, which is a key ally of the Northern Alliance factions that make up the core of the Karzai government. For that reason, Pakistan can be expected to play a spoiler role in any talks from which it is excluded.
The end game in Afghanistan is clearly underway, and its outcome won't resemble either side's best-case. But just what that outcome will be comprised of is a chapter that will be written on the battlefield, at the negotiating table and in the corridors of power in Washington, Kabul, Islamabad and other more discreet venues over the next couple of years.