How Obama Learned to Deal with the Taliban

The militants' willingness to talk signals weakness -- and is the most hopeful sign for the U.S. in Afghanistan in years.
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Muhammad Naeem (L), a spokesman for the Office of the Taliban of Afghanistan speaks during the opening of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha on June 18, 2013. (Mohamad Dabbouss/Reuters)

One thing is clear: the United States fumbled the rollout of peace talks with the Taliban, leading to the latest dustup with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president of Afghanistan. But all that flying dust--harsh words, conciliatory phone calls late into the night--has obscured a more important development: The Taliban may well be weakening and worried about their future.

If true, that would amount to a huge achievement for Barack Obama, who inherited a mostly failed Afghanistan policy from George W. Bush. Make no mistake: This has become entirely Obama's war over the last four years. The president deliberated for six months in 2009, then mounted his own personal mini-surge, shifted his generals around with an almost Lincoln-like alacrity, and ultimately assembled a nearly 350,000-strong Afghan national fighting force in near-record time--a force that has just this week taken over the lead in operations across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated to have a force just one-tenth that size.

Now, after many months in which the Taliban leadership were reluctant to say publicly what they were telling Afghan officials privately--that they are getting a little weary of fighting fellow Afghans and wanted to start up peace talks--that appears to be happening, even if the process has been delayed by a new diplomatic tiff between Washington and Kabul.

It could mean the first serious sign that, after the American and NATO withdrawal of most combat troops at the end of 2014, the country could hold together after all, even with a minimal U.S./NATO presence. And that the U.S.-led "counterinsurgency" scheme could see some meager success after all. The Taliban's fitful willingness to talk would appear to bear out claims from senior Afghan officials that I heard during a trip to Afghanistan in May: that the Taliban are "confused" about their goals, beset with worries about whether they can sustain a successful "spring offensive," and second-guessing themselves about the wisdom of fighting Afghan forces directly, as opposed to "foreign occupiers" -- the U.S. and NATO.

The Taliban are clearly still divided, and the Americans perhaps a little too eager to talk, since what were once preconditions for the talks--cutting all ties with al Qaida--have now become "end goals," in the words of State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (The Taliban appear to have fudged that promise by promising only, in a statement, that the movement will not "allow others to use Afghan soil to pose a threat to the security of other nations.") Yet even as the tentative deal to open up a Taliban office in Qatar for talks was announced, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram air base that killed four Americans the same day. Asked Wednesday whether that assault would scuttle the talks, Psaki replied: "We didn't expect that they would decry al-Qaida and decry terrorism immediately off the top. This was - this is an end result, or an end goal, I should say. It's a bumpy road. We always knew it would be."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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