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Reports out of Pakistan and now London suggest that Afghanistan, NATO, and the Taliban will seek a negotiated settlement. Reliable confirmation, however, has not been forthcoming. If meaningful talks begin, it will be welcome news. If they do not, they should be. Both sides face interminable war and must look for a negotiated settlement.
Though the various insurgent groups (Taliban, Hizb-i Islami, the Haqqani network, and other minor groups) have been spreading throughout the Pashtun regions, the war is stalemated. Insurgent gains in the South and East are only setting the stage for another civil war between the Pashtuns and the various other peoples fated to inhabit Afghanistan. Inasmuch as the latter groups are supported not only by the West but also by Russia, Iran, and India, the Taliban can never control the country to the extent it once did. They face endless war should they try.
Western forces are not facing bandits or fanatics. They are facing resourceful insurgents who have become deeply embedded in Pashtun regions. Ground engagements have become fewer (especially in winter months) and the IED has become central in the insurgents’ effort to wear away western resolve. Though US forces have at last taken counter-insurgency seriously, the historical evidence and counter-insurgency doctrines themselves suggest that such campaigns take a decade or more to reverse momentum, if they ever do. And resolve in western publics is slipping rapidly.
Secret talks have worked in the recent past. US, Saudi, and Iranian back-channel talks were far more responsible than Gen Petraeus’s 2007 surge in reducing the Iraq insurgency. The abruptness of the decline in violence, though welcome, was not at all in keeping with counter-insurgency experience and makes anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare look for another explanation. Secret talks began in 2006 and led to: Sunni-Arab insurgents stopped fighting the US and Shia militias; Iran reined in the Shia militias it supported; Iran prevailed upon Shia politicians to end their infighting and form a government; and the US ceased its threats to bomb Iran. Fighting dropped markedly, political bargains came about, and oil began to flow from Basra once more. It was a triumph of negotiation, not counter-insurgency.
Dialog between the US and the Taliban could give each side much of what it seeks, without one side overtly winning, without a decade or more of fighting.
The West gets:
–The Taliban restrict their ambitions to provinces in the South and East and to a handful of cabinet posts.
–The Taliban break with if not help kill al Qaeda leadership, and never allow it in its areas of control.
–The Taliban agrees never to support, directly or indirectly, the Kashmir conflict in India.
The Taliban get:
–The West withdraws all military forces from the country.
–The West guarantees that drone aircraft and other weapon systems will not target the Taliban as long as they abide by the agreement.
–The West funds reconstruction programs in Afghanistan, including Taliban-controlled areas, channeled through the government in Kabul. This will help restore a balance between Kabul and various regions of the country – a balance upon which periods of tranquility and prosperity have rested.
There is, of course, no guarantee that a negotiated settlement can be reached in Afghanistan, as the Taliban might well feel that victory is within reach and the US will be loth to appear to have negotiated with the Taliban. But the stalemate there is at least conducive to bargain-making. And seeking a negotiated settlement would be a bold and thoughtful departure from the timid and dreary neglect of the last eight years.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org