The U.S. wants a negotiated peace with the Taliban. Here are the issues we'll face, and how they might be resolved
The timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is now clear: 10,000 troops out by the end of this year and 23,000 more out by the end of next summer. That will leave 67,000 troops, who, if all goes according to plan, will be withdrawn before the end of 2014, with a possible residual assistance force of unspecified size thereafter. That solves the military equation. But what about the political formula? How will Afghanistan be governed after we leave? Will it remain under its current constitution? What role will there be for the Taliban? How will power be shared between Kabul and the provinces? How about the most troublesome neighbor, Pakistan? What will its role be? And what can the United States do to make the answers these questions come out in a direction that does as little harm to our interests as possible?
President Obama in his withdrawal announcement last month was remarkably silent on these issues. While clear as usual that our primary interest in Afghanistan is to defeat Al Qaeda, on governance in Afghanistan he said only that it won't be "perfect." That is not much guidance for our diplomats and aid workers, who are looking ahead to an end-of-year international conference in Bonn expected to set the course for our coalition partners as well as the Afghans for the three years then remaining before completion of the withdrawal process.
The governments of Europe and of other coalition partners want to see political reconciliation, which has become a popular notion in the U.S. as well. Retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the end of this year is a reasonable timeframe for negotiations with the Taliban to begin yielding results. What can we hope for by way of a political settlement? What are the options? President Obama, in his June announcement on Afghanistan, reiterated his goals for reconciliation negotiations with the Taliban: they must break with Al Qaeda, foreswear violence, and accept the Afghan constitution. The insurgent leaderships -- most importantly the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar's Taliban Quetta Shura -- show little sign of feeling compelled to comply. A few days after the speech, and presumably in response, Taliban members attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, targeting Afghan politicians gathered to discuss the impending turnover of security responsibility for Kabul and several provinces to the Afghan National Security Forces. It's clear that at least some of the Taliban will fight on for a long time, as insurgents in Iraq have done.
Some Taliban, however, may want a deal, and the German government has been hosting talks aimed at one. What might the Taliban hope to get in return for meeting something like the President's redlines? So far, the focus seems to have been on confidence-building measures like freeing prisoners and removing Taliban from terrorist lists. Washington does not like to discuss it, but an overall political settlement will only be possible if the Taliban get something more substantial in return for whatever we get.
The options are few (and not mutually exclusive): a share of political power in Kabul, control over territory, economic benefits, and guarantees of U.S. withdrawal.
Sharing political power in Kabul is not an easy fix. The Taliban fought a ferocious civil war against Northern Alliance and other politicians who today govern in Kabul, having thrown the Taliban out of Kabul with U.S. assistance in 2001. The Islamist Taliban would want to reintroduce their version of strict religious practices, a move many in Kabul would resist. Northern Alliance, many women, secularists, and others would not want to see the Taliban back in power in Kabul. Former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh have become the leaders of this rejectionist front. It won't be enough for the U.S. to approve Taliban political involvement -- these Afghan groups would also need to go along.
Another option would be sharing power at the provincial level, especially in the more Pashtun provinces of the south and east. Afghanistan has only rarely been effectively ruled from Kabul. The Taliban could dominate politics in Helmand, Kandahar, and other provinces along the border with Pakistan, thus allowing the group its long-desired role in government without handing over all of Afghanistan. This could, however, lead to a virtual partition of the country, with the Taliban-dominated provinces becoming a de facto part of Pakistan. Some might even say this is good: it would give Pakistan the strategic depth it seeks in Afghanistan -- reducing its incentives to continue meddling and promoting militancy -- and prevent New Delhi from exploiting its relationship with Kabul to the detriment of Islamabad, at least in the border provinces.
There are only three economic assets of real value in Afghanistan: control over drug production and trade, control over mineral resources, and control of border crossings and transport. The Taliban already exercise a good deal of control over all three in parts of the countryside where they are dominant. We are not likely to gain enough control over drugs to interest the Taliban, who know we would not want to return any control we do gain to them. Mineral resources, to be effectively exploited, require a national mining and export framework and guarantees to foreign investors that only the government in Kabul can provide. If Afghanistan is to prosper, border crossings and transport will also need to be mainly under national control.
Finally, the Taliban have sought withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. This is a problem. President Karzai has made it clear that he would like one or more American bases to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, and talks have begun on a strategic framework that would enable American forces to stay, provided the Afghan government asks them to do so. Washington wants such bases so that it will have the capability to strike against Al Qaeda, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Taliban will fear that the Americans will use any residual presence to strike them as well as to shore up Karzai's government.
Bottom line: the Taliban may well feel that they can get more by fighting on than by negotiating, but if they get serious about negotiations they will likely seek a share of power in the south and east, along with some representation in Kabul. Political power is likely to bring some economic benefits as well, in particular control over border crossings and transport. The Taliban would also continue to control at least some drug production and trade where they are politically dominant.
This is an unattractive proposition, especially to Afghan women and the Northern Alliance. It would most likely resemble Hizbollah's role in Lebanon, which has been a source of regional instability in the Middle East for many years. Is there anything that could be done that would amount to more than putting lipstick on this pig?
The answer is "yes," but it requires the United States to worry about something it has studiously ignored for many years: the Durand line, which is the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that Afghanistan accepts but Pakistan has not.
I don't know of any two countries without an agreed and demarcated border that live happily side by side. When I called on a national security advisor in Kabul years ago and asked why Afghanistan had not recognized the Durand line, he responded: "I wouldn't want to foreclose options for future generations." Pakistan is a country that lives with what it considers an "existential" threat from India to the south and east. It surely does not need another threat, however remote, on its western border. Ethnic Pashtun irredentism -- the Pashtuns live on both sides of the Durand line -- greatly complicates Islamabad's challenges.
Afghan recognition of the Durand line as part of a broader deal with the Taliban would provide Pakistan with an important benefit, without depriving it of "strategic depth" inside Afghanistan. This would have to be done in a way that allows a good deal of free movement across the border, since otherwise the Taliban and other locals, who have enjoyed relatively free movement for decades, would object. But agreeing to and demarcating the Durand line would markedly improve relations between Kabul and Islamabad, enabling them to collaborate on what really counts for the United States: ensuring that their border area does not become a haven for international terrorists.