With the passage of the war supplemental by the Senate, President Obama and Congress are "doubling down" on war in Afghanistan. Are we - and the Afghan people - doomed to endure many more years of war?
There is no reason that we need be, according to yesterday's New York Times, which reports that talks between Taliban leaders and Afghan government representatives have accelerated since Obama's election, and that Afghan officials say they have the tacit blessing of Washington for the talks.
Furthermore, the demands being put forward by the Taliban in the negotiations appear, on the face of it, to be eminently reasonable. Daoud Abedi, one of the intermediaries in the talks, told the Times he had hammered out a common set of demands between the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group. The groups agreed to stop fighting if those conditions were met, Abedi said.
The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.
Is there anything here which appears unreasonable on its face?
- Pullback to bases: this was a demand of the Iraqi government, which the US eventually agreed to a version of.
- Cease-fire: a standard element of any peace plan.
- Timetable for US withdrawal - in Iraq, the US agreed to a timetable for withdrawal.
- Transitional government including insurgent leaders: another standard feature of peace agreements.
- Replacement of Western troops by peacekeepers from Muslim nations: eminently reasonable. Note that many Muslim nations who might be willing to contribute to such a force have very close relations with the United States.
- Guarantee from insurgents not to attack such a force: obviously, a pre-condition of such a force being deployed; Muslim nations wouldn't deploy their forces unless they believed such guarantees were credible, and if the Taliban reneged on such a deal, it would hurt them very badly politically. Moreover, the Taliban have adhered to similar agreements made in the past, mediated by Pakistan.
- Nationwide elections after departure of Western forces - who could be against that? A standard principle of UN decolonization is that elections should not take place under the auspices of occupying powers.
The Taliban also demand the end of US drone attacks in Pakistan. But since even counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen says the drone attacks are doing the US more harm than good, and since according to Pakistan they are killing more civilians than militants, it's hard to see why this should be a deal-breaker.
The talks are significant because they suggest how a political settlement may be able to end the eight-year-old war, the Times says.
Of course, all this is one-half of the negotiation: the Taliban demands. What's missing for an agreement are the US demands. The US is sure to demand, at the very least, a guarantee from the Taliban about Afghanistan not being a base for attacks on the US; past statements from Taliban officials suggest that such a guarantee might not be very hard to obtain in the context of an agreement. But in any event, the fact that the Taliban are making reasonable demands ought to focus attention on the need for the Obama Administration to get serious about supporting inside-Afghanistan diplomacy.
The signaled position of the Obama Administration has been: we're not in any hurry for talks, because we want to bloody the Taliban first, so they'll be more flexible in negotiations. But if the Taliban are already being flexible, perhaps we could skip over the bloodying part - given that for every bloodied Taliban, there are going to be fifty bloodied Afghan civilians - and move straight to meaningful negotiations.