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
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.