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 That will leave 67,000 troops, who, if all goes according to plan, will be withdrawn before the end of 2014, with a possible residual assistance force of unspecified size thereafter.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.