President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan wants to talk to the Taliban, and that's going to be a thorny issue for President Obama when the two leaders meet on Wednesday.
Some U.S. officials would prefer that Mr. Karzai and his government concentrate on detaching low-level fighters from the insurgent cause, but Mr. Karzai would prefer to go right to the top leadership. He has already offered to meet with Mullah Muhammad Omar to seek an end to the conflict.
In official American parlance, the effort to negotiate a peace accord with the Taliban leadership has been labeled reconciliation, while the process of bringing over insurgent fighters is known as reintegration.
The U.S. has preferred reintegration. Each insurgent brought over weakens the enemy and strengthens the government forces. In Iraq, such a process broke the back of the Sunni insurgency, resulting in the massive defection of enemy fighters, who in 2007 moved more or less overnight from killing American soldiers to working for them. This was achieved without U.S. concessions on the nature of the Iraqi state.
Reconciliation would require mutual accommodation between two competing Afghan leaderships, inevitably opening the prospect of substantive trade-offs that worry U.S. officials and many Afghans.
So it is easy to see why bottom-up reintegration has gotten a warmer U.S. endorsement than top-down reconciliation. But there are reasons to doubt that the Iraq model would work in Afghanistan.
That's partly because the Taliban isn't losing. By 2007, Iraq's Sunni minority, the smallest of the country's three major sectarian groups, had been decisively beaten by the majority Shiites. It was only after this defeat that the Sunni turned to U.S. forces for protection. By contrast, the Taliban insurgency is rooted not in Afghanistan's smallest ethnic group, but in its largest, the Pashtun. For several years, these insurgents have been winning.
In Iraq, Al Qaeda had by 2007 made itself very unwelcome among its Sunni allies by the indiscriminate nature of its violence. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is now hardly present, and certainly presents no comparable threat to the Pashtun insurgent leadership.
Finally tribal structures in Afghanistan have been weakened by 30 years of civil war. That has made Afghan elders less influential than the Iraqi sheiks who proved able to bring almost all of their adherents over with them when they decided to switch to the U.S. side.
U.S. leaders have not necessarily been against negotiating with the Taliban leadership, but most have argued that this should be done from a position of strength, and that any effort at reconciliation should therefore await an improvement on the battlefield. That makes sense if one is reasonably confident that the tide of battle can be turned. Unfortunately, this is looking increasingly difficult to achieve, at least within the narrow timeframe set by President Obama last November to begin bringing American troops home by mid-2011.
Recognizing that his position is not necessarily getting stronger, Mr. Karzai wants to open talks with the Taliban leadership now. So do a number of allied governments, whose publics are even less supportive of the war than the American people.
So should President Obama give Mr. Karzai the green light for high-level talks with the enemy?
Having myself represented the United States in late 2001 at the international conferences at which Mr. Karzai was chosen to lead the new Afghan provisional government, I am very conscious that his country's largest single political faction was not represented. The Taliban certainly did not and does not have the support of most Afghans — or even most Pashtun — but it is nevertheless the largest and most cohesive of Afghanistan's many factions.
This was not as evident in late 2001, when the Northern Alliance of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazzara (i.e. Shiite) militias sent the Taliban reeling with the assistance of U.S. air power. But the incomplete nature of that victory, the limited capacity of the Karzai government, and the continued vitality of the Taliban have become more evident since.
It thus makes sense for the U.S. to support Mr. Karzai in his effort at reconciliation, even as it also presses ahead with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plans for reintegration. In doing so, however, Mr. Obama should try to set certain ground rules, and secure a more considered approach than Mr. Karzai is likely to take on his own.
First of all, U.S. red lines need to be further defined. The Bush administration set three conditions for any peace agreement, guidelines that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently reaffirmed. First, the insurgents would need to cut all ties with Al Qaeda. Second, they should lay down their arms. Third, they should agree to operate within the existing Afghan Constitution.
President Obama should certainly insist on their cutting ties with Al Qaeda. But if the Taliban lays down its arms, will the U.S. take its leadership off its capture or kill list? Will the United Nations take them off its sanctions list? Could the Afghan Constitution be amended as part of the deal? Mr. Karzai will need to know Washington's position on these questions.
So far, Mr. Karzai has talked with insurgent representatives largely through his brother. Keeping something so important "within the family" has raised anxiety among those Afghans who stand to lose most in any negotiated peace, including non-Pashtun minorities, as well as women and those who support their emancipation. President Obama should urge Mr. Karzai to appoint a broadly representative delegation to help him conduct any negotiations, one that would include Tajik, Uzbek, Hazzara and women leaders.
Finally, Afghanistan's factions will never make peace as long as their foreign sponsors foment conflict. Pakistan may be able to deliver the Taliban to a peace agreement, but this would only start a new civil war unless India, Iran and Russian were also able to deliver the old Northern Alliance.
President Obama should therefore attempt to rebuild the regional consensus that buttressed U.S. diplomacy back in late 2001, and led to the rapid installation of the Karzai government. This time, the international community must rally for a more lasting peace.
Mr. Karzai intends to hold a national council in order to secure a broad mandate for his effort to pursue a negotiated solution to the civil war. Mr. Obama should agree to support this, while building broader international support for the process.
Still, meaningful peace talks may never get underway despite both men's best efforts. Even if they do, results could take years. And Mr. Obama's declared timeline for initiating withdrawals should not become a deadline for those discussions. As Winston Churchill remarked, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war." But the best that can be expected for some time to come is that talking begin to accompany fighting.
James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. He served as the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan between 2001 and 2002.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on May 12, 2010.