Direct talks are the least bad, and maybe only, way to wind down the Afghan War -- but it has to include Pakistan
As American officials scramble to contain the fallout from an appalling video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, news that the Obama administration is carrying out secret negotiations with the Taliban has barely registered on the American political landscape. The lack of interest in the talks - and public outrage at the video - reflects how little Americans apparently care about the conflict, despite its staggering human and fiscal cost.
Thousands of Taliban fighters have died as well, according to American military estimates, but no reliable figure exists. While suffering heavy casualties in set-piece battles, the Taliban have excelled at suicide attacks, roadside bombs and propaganda that portrays American forces as abusive occupiers. The video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses - a hugely offensive act to Muslims and a potential war crime - will only reinforce that image.
The United States, meanwhile, has spent $345 billion in Afghanistan over the last decade, with the overwhelming majority funding U.S. military operations, not imperative but largely overlooked civilian aid efforts. The war in Iraq, by comparison, cost almost twice as much, $673 billion, and featured the same sweeping focus on military efforts.
Across the political spectrum in Washington, there is little interest in engaging with the difficult but vital questions of the post-Arab spring. How can the U.S. devise ways to more consistently, quietly and effectively back moderate Muslims? Calls from the far left and far right for completely disengaging from the Greater Middle East are a fantasy. For decades to come, the American and world economies will rely on the region's oil.
And when it comes to Afghanistan, few are bothered by how America leaves. They just want it to happen quickly.
Opposition to the Iraq war made it chic for Democrats to be isolationist. Liberals who defend human rights glibly dismiss Afghanistan as nothing more than a quagmire. There is little acknowledgement of the gains Afghan moderates and women have made over the past decade, or the brutal payback a triumphant Taliban could mete out against them.
On the usually martial right, the Republican Party is split. John Huntsman and Ron Paul want an immediate pullout. Newt Gingrich has flip-flopped. And front-runner Mitt Romney opposes talks of any kind.
Romney is wrong. The chances of success are low, but given tepid American public support for the war, talking to the Taliban is the right step.
By any measure, many Taliban are reprehensible. They brutally ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and sheltered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda members as they planned the 9/11 attacks. According to the latest United Nations figures, Taliban attacks - primarily suicide and roadside bombings - caused 80 percent of the 1,462 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011.
Over the past decade, they have assassinated hundreds of moderate Afghans who were trying to stabilize the country. They have also kidnapped scores of Afghans and foreigners, including myself and two Afghan colleagues held captive for seven months in 2008 and 2009.
I despised the Taliban faction that kidnapped us -- the Haqqani network -- and saw them as criminals masquerading as a pious religious movement. Nonetheless, I believe negotiations represent a chance to split more moderate Taliban from hard-core supporters of Al Qaeda. If the Taliban refuse to compromise, exposing that grim truth will be valuable as well.
Obama administration officials emphasize that their goal is not a Treaty of Versailles-like agreement that will bring full-blown peace to Afghanistan. Instead, it is to begin a series of talks that might gradually reduce the overall level of violence in the country.
The latest opinion polls show that the American public has largely given up on the war. The central question, of course, is whether the Taliban have tired of the conflict as well. Despite claims that it had little effect, the Obama military surge weakened the Taliban and drove them from their strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
As I have written in past columns, the key remains the Pakistani military. As long as Pakistan's generals continue their foolhardy policy of backing the Afghan Taliban as proxies to counter Indian encroachment in Afghanistan, no American military victory is possible. Today, the Afghan Taliban are waiting out the Obama surge in their safe havens in Pakistan. Involving the Pakistani military in the talks is critical.
"I waited for the surge, I waited to see what would happen," Fariba Nawa, an Afghan American journalist and the author of the book "Opium Nation," told me last week. "But now Pakistan has won the war."
Nawa voiced the fear, anguish and despair of many Afghan moderates, who find themselves trapped between brutal Taliban, the erratic government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, disingenuous Pakistani generals and shortsighted American political jockeying. Obama's promise to withdraw most American forces by the end of 2014, while popular in the U.S., signaled to the Taliban and their Pakistani military patrons that America is desperate for a way out.
Completing negotiations with Karzai on the level of American forces post-2014 would improve the chances of successful talks. Showing that the United States will train and fund Afghan security forces for years to come could help bring the Taliban seriously to the table. It will also show that Afghans must lead the fight now, not Americans.
At the same time, it is vital for understandably frustrated Americans not to see the mercurial Karzai as all of Afghanistan. The end of Karzai's second term in 2014 - and promised departure from office - presents an opportunity. After a disjointed Bush administration effort and hugely expensive but brief Obama administration effort, the U.S. should try to do less over a longer period in Afghanistan. Throwing up our hands and completely walking away will haunt us for years.
Protecting Afghan moderates should be the bottom line of American negotiators. If the Taliban refuse to make concessions, the talks should be allowed to fail.
Across the region, the negotiations will be viewed as a measure of American reliability, practicality and respect for the enormous price moderate Muslims are paying in the struggle against extremism. Americans may no longer care, but our present and future Muslim allies are watching.
This article also appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.