In the course of an interesting David Ignatius column about negotiating with the Taliban comes this:
President Karzai is said to have demanded that the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, publicly renounce bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a condition for further talks. A Taliban representative took this demand to Mullah Omar in his hideout in Afghanistan and returned to Mecca with a positive answer, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Holy shit! Think of the disruption that a public split with the Taliban would cause al-Qaeda. So much of al-Qaeda’s propaganda is built around its indomitable-and-rugged-warrior-of-faith image. But if the Taliban, who fit that bill much better than does AQ, goes for a separate peace, then that’s not something bin Laden recovers from. Imagine the contortions in a bin Laden videotape as he explains why Mullah Omar, his friend and patron of nearly 15 years, was never a true Muslim. In the eyes of jihadists, UBL would appear isolated, desparate and fanatical.
So what do the Taliban want?
Mullah Omar has sent the Saudis a list of seven demands of his own, according to this source. Among the items on the Taliban agenda are a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan; a role for Taliban representatives in provincial and national government; assimilation of Taliban fighters into the Afghan army; and amnesty for guerrillas who fought against the United States.
There are concerns about all of these, and, above all, a meta-concern about the Taliban’s seriousness in negotiating. Since coming back from Afghanistan, I’ve been experimenting with a prospective policy: bolster U.S. forces and concentrate entirely on the east, where the U.S. command has the greatest and most direct influence, and where the first-order threat — Taliban and al-Qaeda elements — either are, or border, or infiltrate into. This involves essentially ignoring the rest of Afghanistan, which is the biggest flaw in my argument. But anyway — COIN the hell out of the east, as much as specific conditions allow: my interviews with Afghans in Paktia and Khost suggest to me that there’s a base of support for U.S. troops provided that they’re seen as actively improving the security of the populace, and delivering results. Take that opportunity for the next one to three years. In Year One, intensify calls to Taliban and affiliated elements for reconciliation with the national government (Karzai or otherwise). That way, the choice posed to the insurgency is fairly clear — you can fight and die, or you can have a piece of the action. And you publicly announce that the prize for a thoroughgoing reconciliation with the Afghan government — judged by whatever mechanism can be created — is a U.S. withdrawal. The flip side to that is if the Taliban doesn’t come to the table, we stay and fight.
There are a couple problems with this position that I can see. Most importantly, it’s at least theoretically possible that we’d leave while al-Qaeda still enjoys its Pakistani safe haven, and I’d be the first to concede that’s unacceptable. Second, I didn’t say anything about Pakistan in my thought-experiment above, because I’m not sure what to do and that’s another glaring flaw. Third, I’ve assumed limitless resources at a time of global economic hardship. These are all problems, and surely you can identify some others in comments.
But, to put David Petraeus’s famous invocation in the context of the Afghanistan war, tell me how this ends. I see absolutely no evidence that policymakers or military commanders have a realistic answer to that question, nor any signs of public demands for one. What we don’t also have is a clear assessment of our priorities in Afghanistan, meaning it’s difficult to judge what we’re willing to trade for Taliban peace talks and what we’re not. And I would venture to say that an opening schism between Omar and bin Laden is worth paying a lot. It’s not worth immediately announcing a withdrawal date, unless that date is something like five years from now or otherwise fairly remote. If we can put off that announcement until talks proceed substantively, that’s awesome. But a prospective Taliban/AQ schism is worth a hell of a lot, because the Taliban has never been the real target. That’s al-Qaeda. And the loss of its Taliban ally will materially disrupt al-Qaeda’s capabilities. Exploring this should be a first-order priority of an
Obama incoming administration.