Last October, hearts jumped in the West. The Iranian delegation at Geneva agreed to ship out the bulk of its low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France, where it would be respectively enriched to 18.75 % and then turned into fuel rods for the manufacture of medical isotopes at Iran's research reactor at Tehran. The advantage for the West was that Iran's stock of uranium would be taken out of the play for about one year, during which time Iran would not be able to go to highly enriched uranium (HEU) at 90%, sufficient for a nuclear bomb.
But once the Iranian delegation got back to Tehran, the decision-makers apparently speculated that if they sent their uranium abroad, they might not get it back. They then counter-proposed that the uranium be sent out in tranches, with the second not to be sent until the product of the first came back.
At this point, the United States, as the lead on the Western side, decided that the Iran was just being tricky again,* because the counter proposal did not conform to the vision of getting most of Iran's uranium out of the country, thereby halting, for a time, the enrichment process. The alternative for the West would have been to continue the discussions with the Iranians, negotiating directly with them their new proposal. But this option was not chosen.
Correspondingly, in Afghanistan, the American vision is that of a "bottom up" approach in a negotiation with the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban, not a "top down" one. In other words, coaxing away low-level Taliban fighters and their commanders ("reintegration"), rather than changing the government setup at Kabul by letting Taliban leaders become members of the government ("reconciliation"). Though reintegration may have some initial success, spurred on by money and jobs, it is unlikely to be permanent, given the Afghans' long history of changing sides. But also because those fighting against the US-backed government appeal to much more than money. They have successfully mobilized nationalist and islamist sentiment among the Pashtuns, which is hard for a perceived-corrupt government to combat through financial incentives.
Another condition set by the U.S. is that the Afghan Taliban must separate itself from al-Qaeda. Whether the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, would agree to this is doubtful. He did not agree to it before, when Prince Turki, the then Saudi intelligence chief, in vain tried to persuade him to hand over Usama Ben Laden. In any event, though this is a sine qua non condition for the U.S., even if a pledge were extracted, it might at some point, or here and there, be violated.
These two conditions for a political settlement - non-entry of Taliban leaders into the government in Kabul, and a break between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda - represent the outcome that the U.S. would like to see come about. It may have to be adjusted.
In Afghanistan there is a clear divide between the north and the south of the Hindu Kush mountains, Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras in the former and Pashtuns in the latter (though there are pockets of Pashtuns who have settled in the north). Since its founding in 1747, and except for two brief periods, the Afghan state has been ruled by the Durrani branch of the Pashtuns. At the Bonn Conference in late 2001, the idea of restoring the former king, the aged Zahir Shah, was rejected, and instead Hamid Karzai, also a Durrani Pashtun but sponsored by the Americans, was chosen to head the state. Since then, Karzai, through a do-nothing and corrupt governance -- and in 2009, election rigging -- has lost the confidence of the Pashtun population as a whole.
In sum, there are two Gordian knots that must be cut in Afghanistan: many of the Pashtuns, particularly those centered around Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, are not satisfied with the extent of their voice in the Kabul Government. The Pashtuns are the largest group in the country (40%) and have been the traditional rulers. Afghanistan's other peoples, the Tajik, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and even some of the non-Kandahari Pashtuns in the east, have a genuine stake in the new system atop of which Karzai sits and fear the prospect that any rejigging of the political order would reward rebels at their expense. The non-Pashtuns, it seems clear, would resist to the end a return to Pashtun hegemony.
The second Gordian knot is, of course, the U.S. insistence that the Taliban renounce its ties with al-Qaeda. Whatever the outcome of these two issues, it may not conform to the U.S. vision of an acceptable result to its Afghan intervention.
* The Farsi tradition of takiya has it that dissimulation is a virtue when one is faced with a superior power.
Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. It was from this Division that was run the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is currently an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.