The new buzz on Afghanistan is all about talking to the Taliban.
In London, where nearly 70 countries gathered last week to help resolve Afghanistan's problems, President Hamid Karzai called for a tribal assembly that would include the Taliban and would seek "peace and reconciliation."
The media have gone wild with speculation about whether President Obama intends to off-load his Afghan problem by selling out to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, or whether Karzai pulled a fast one on his American mentors by reaching out to insurgents.
I suggest everyone take a deep breath. The U.S. position toward talks with the Taliban has shifted somewhat, but no deal with top Taliban leaders is imminent, or even likely. As for Karzai's efforts, they are part of an emerging U.S.-Afghan strategy to woo Taliban who are willing to break with al-Qaeda and rejoin the political scene.
The shift in U.S. strategy is impelled by recognition that there is no military solution to the Afghan violence. NATO commanders are focused on a bottom-up approach, referred to as "reintegration," which hopes to wean away low- and mid-level Taliban who are in the fight for a paycheck, or because of grievances with government officials. "Reintegration is hugely important, informally or formally," I was told by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Kabul, in a November interview.
U.S. efforts at reintegration are meant to parallel an Afghan government program that would ensure safety for Taliban who returned home. Karzai's main mission in London was to raise funds for this program, which is supposed to provide returnees with economic aid and jobs.
A big caveat: A previous Afghan government effort at reintegration failed because the limited funds for the program were misused, and most of the claimants were not even Taliban. "It's good to have a reintegration strategy, but you have to keep close tabs on the money," said Michael Semple, a former Irish EU official in Afghanistan with deep knowledge of the country.
Tribes and ethnic groups that don't get funds may be resentful, and efforts at reintegration may trigger rivalries among local and national Afghan politicians. Indeed, Semple, who worked on a reintegration effort in tandem with the Afghan Ministry of Interior, got caught in such a squeeze and was kicked out of the country, in December 2007.
U.S. officials are aware of this risk; when an entire Pashtun tribe recently agreed to fight back against the Taliban, military commanders promised them $1 million for economic development that won't go through Afghan government hands.
But the bigger strategic issue is whether to reach out to top Taliban commanders - as Karzai suggested in London. U.S. officials don't oppose such outreach in principle, although they are leaving any top-down approach to Afghan officials.
"We believe our strategic problem with the Taliban begins and ends with their support for al-Qaeda," a U.S. official told me in Kabul in November. If Taliban commanders are ready to break with al-Qaeda, and to enter the Afghan political arena, the United States would not oppose their return, he said.
U.S. commanders don't believe, however, that top Taliban members will accept Karzai's invite so long as they think they are winning. Indeed, the Taliban quickly rejected Karzai's London offer, as the insurgents have done with previous such gestures, saying all NATO troops must leave first.
U.S. officials say they believe the troop surge and reintegration efforts are necessary to shift the momentum and convince some Taliban commanders that their options have narrowed.
The emerging debate, within the administration and among its allies, is over whether to make a stronger effort, now, to bring senior Taliban leaders to the table. There is deep skepticism that Mullah Omar (or leaders of the tough Haqqani network) would break with al-Qaeda. But some experts say they think members of Omar's inner circle might be willing.
"No one knows if the top Taliban leadership will come into a political deal," says Semple, in part because they haven't had to put their cards on the table. The removal of five ex-Taliban officials from a U.N. blacklist signals that it's time for the Taliban to put forward a political platform.
I'll admit I find it hard to imagine the Afghan Taliban morphing into a political party - one that no longer threatens Afghan minorities and women, Afghanistan's neighbors, or us. But it's a prospect worth exploring, while showing that the alternatives lead nowhere.
So let's get on with the feelers - whether via Karzai, or the Pakistanis, or (caution here) the Saudis. As Michael Semple puts it, "This will be much more profound than reintegration, but the main show has not begun. The U.S. position has moved on, but nothing is at an advanced stage."
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.
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