It's true that the Taliban are exhausted by 32 years of war that includes a major defeat in 2001. They have taken terrible casualties at the hands of NATO forces and in the past three months some 300 commanders have been killed or captured, according to Gen. Petraeus.
Despite their links to al-Qaeda, the Taliban are not global jihadists; they consider themselves as patriotic Afghan nationalists fighting a war against foreign occupation, legitimized by Islam. Indeed, they are fed up with being manipulated by Pakistan on one hand and by al-Qaeda on the other.
Taliban leaders may also realize that they are now at their apogee. They are a nationwide guerrilla insurgency, but they cannot take or control major population centres given NATO's firepower. There is no populist insurrection they can lead against U.S. forces as there was in Iraq - the majority of Afghans do not want the return of a Taliban regime.
Perhaps the most compelling argument is that Taliban leaders know they failed in governance once when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s because the international community refused to recognize or help them. And they would fail again if they came to power now. Better, then, to deal with a pro-Western leader such as Mr. Karzai, who would share power with them and keep the aid flow coming.
What would a peace process look like? Clearly there will be no grand conference like the Paris or Daytona meetings that ended the Vietnam and Yugoslav wars. Instead, expect piecemeal negotiations with the Taliban factions and then with factions within the factions, not by one Afghan or Western negotiator but by multiple negotiators from different NATO countries and the United Nations.
Real talks would have to start with a series of confidence-building measures in the provinces between different Taliban groups and Afghan-NATO forces. Providing safe passage to Kabul was one such measure from NATO. To make progress the Taliban would have to respond - perhaps by pledging a ceasefire in one district and in another allowing aid agencies to work. They might promise to cease assassinating Afghan officials. Thus the grounds for real negotiations would be prepared layer by layer. The Americans will not be able to hurry this.
The idea of actually negotiating power sharing and structures with the Taliban is still anathema to the U.S., but there will have to be real give and take on both sides. Negotiations could evolve into two parts. The first would be about power sharing in the provinces and the centre, as well as the question of whether the present government would continue and for how long.
The next part would be more difficult - reconciling the deep divisions on social issues. The Taliban precondition is that sharia law must be implemented, while the Afghan government and the international community insist that the modern, democratic Afghan constitution must be upheld. This basic dichotomy involves all the key issues important to Afghans, such as women's rights, education, the justice system and even the idea of representative government and elections.
None of this will be possible unless there is enormous diplomatic effort put into creating regional co-operation to help rather than hinder peace in Afghanistan.
Talk of a grand bargain in which Afghanistan's six neighbors (Pakistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) and its powerful near-neighbours (India, Russia, Saudi Arabia) would agree to end their mutual differences are both unrealistic and unachievable. Instead there would have to be mini-agreements, for example between India and Pakistan, between the U.S. and Iran and between Russia and China, to leave Afghanistan in peace and not use it as a regional competition zone.
The most taxing and violent of these is the rivalry between India and Pakistan. The two cannot resolve their longstanding fights over Kashmir and other matters as part of an Afghan settlement; but they could agree to resolve their differences over influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan cannot wish India away from Afghanistan, with which it has long standing ties. Likewise, India cannot hope to snub or to derail Pakistan's much greater stake in Afghanistan, with which it shares the longest of borders, troublesome tribes and huge economic interests and problems.
If a new reality is dawning in the Pentagon and NATO - that Western forces can fight and talk at the same time - then it has to dawn in the White House as well. In last year's policy review before announcing the troop surge in Afghanistan, the issue of talks did not come up. This December it should be centre stage. Real progress will occur when the surge strategy is refitted around a committed strategy for negotiations. Clearly, war is too complicated a business to be left to the generals.
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