The west will be involved in Afghanistan for some years to come. Nato and its allies will not fully hand over responsibility for the country’s security arrangements to Afghan forces until 2014. The US plans to maintain military bases in the country beyond this date. But, slowly, the outlines of the endgame are emerging.
Over the weekend, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, revealed that the US has had preliminary contact with the Taliban. On Wednesday, the White House will announce how many of the 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn this year. Between them, these two decisions will go a long way towards determining the manner in which the west ends its 10-year campaign. A botched exit would be a disaster for a region which is barely less of a tinderbox than it was in 2001.
Talks with the Taliban are overdue. It has long been clear that a lasting resolution of the Afghan conflict will not be achieved by force of arms alone. However obnoxious its ideology is to western sensibilities, the Taliban enjoys enough support – especially in its Pushtun heartlands in southern Afghanistan – that no political settlement can be achieved without it. The international coalition made the error of excluding the defeated Taliban from the 2001 Bonn conference that set Afghanistan’s post-invasion course. It has had eight bloody years to reflect on this mistake.
Yet, welcome as talks are, the obstacles to their success are formidable. The first challenge is to find the interlocutors who can credibly speak for the Taliban’s leadership. Last year, the west flew a supposed high-level Taliban commander to Kabul for talks, only to discover later that he was an imposter. Avoiding further mishaps will require the help of the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence service. Yet the country’s security establishment is still smarting from the American operation which found, and killed, Osama bin Laden within plain view of Pakistan’s military academy. Repairing this relationship is of paramount importance.
The second difficulty is that the Taliban is only part of the Afghan opposition. The network of insurgents run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, which straddles the porous border with Pakistan, is just the most prominent of several jihadi groups capable of causing havoc if left untended. Such groups, and not just the Taliban, should be the target of western negotiators.
Even if the west succeeds in opening contacts with such groups, reaching any sort of agreement will be fiendishly complicated. Beyond their demand that international forces withdraw immediately, the aims of the competing Afghan factions are diffuse. Moreover, it is not clear whether those who wish to talk can bring their followers with them. An extremist rump implacably opposed to dealing with the west will undoubtedly remain.
The west’s strategy must be to split the waverers from these hardliners. This means doing two things: offering a political settlement which appeals to opponents of Afghanistan’s existing system, while putting enough military pressure on the Taliban and its ilk that they believe they cannot beat the coalition on the battlefield.
The west’s ability to shape a political settlement is constrained by the fact that – at least on paper – Afghanistan‘s constitution centres power in the hands of a strong president. That is far from ideal in a country of such ethnic and tribal diversity as Afghanistan. To draw in outsiders, a greater degree of power-sharing will be necessary.
Forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table militarily is not straightforward either. By announcing that international forces will leave Afghanistan in 2014, the coalition has given the Taliban an incentive to try and outwait it. That makes this summer’s fighting decisive: the international forces must inflict enough reversals on the Taliban to make the idea of parley appealing. It is therefore crucial that the drawdown of international forces does not proceed too quickly. David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, is thought to favour a modest withdrawal of perhaps 5,000 troops this year. His civilian superiors should heed him.
Given the frail state of the Afghan army and police force, a precipitate withdrawal of coalition forces would create a dangerous security vacuum. That would imperil not just the progress won at such a terrible price over the past 10 years in Afghanistan, but also the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear state itself gripped by an increasingly vicious insurgency. That must be avoided at all costs.