Jackson Diehl
Deputy editorial page editor April 24, 2011

Afghanistan has been mostly out of the headlines the last few months, in part because its winter freezes most fighting and in part because it’s been overshadowed by the Arab revolutions. As warmer weather brings back both the war and the debate over policy in Washington, the starting point could be summarized this way: Thanks to the U.S. military, the Taliban has been driven out of most of its southern strongholds since last summer.

So in the coming months the Taliban will be trying to get back into Afghanistan. The U.S. military will try to hold on. And President Obama and his civilian political team will be searching desperately for a way out.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. View Archive

Obama will have to decide soon how many American troops to withdraw this summer in keeping with his promise to begin in July to wind down the surge of reinforcements he ordered in late 2009. The Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran has reported that Obama’s civilian aides are pushing for a deadline of fall 2012 for the withdrawal of all of the 30,000 troops he sent. Why fall 2012? Even most Afghans realize the date has nothing to do with their country.

The military drawdown appears likely to be accompanied by a new attempt to promote a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a “diplomatic surge” in a February speech in which she seemed to soften previous conditions for talks with the Taliban. The administration is said to be quietly encouraging a Turkish initiative to allow the Taliban to open an office in Turkey, which would provide a clear channel for communications.

The idea of a quick political fix is seductive. There’s just one problem: It’s an illusion. Not only is there no chance of striking a workable deal with the Taliban, but the pursuit of one is only likely to make an already difficult political situation in Afghanistan worse.

I was reminded of this last week by Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan freedom fighter, foreign minister and presidential candidate — and one of the country’s stronger advocates of political democracy. Abdullah was in Washington to make the case that the United States should keep investing its resources in building a democratic Afghan state.

“My concern is that there is an attitude here that the military campaign, as well as talks with the Taliban, will get us out of this,” Abdullah said during a visit to The Post. “As part of that, a conclusion is being made that in Afghanistan democracy is not needed, or not possible, after all.”

Abdullah, of course, knows very well what evidence can be offered for that conclusion — his own 2009 presidential race against Hamid Karzai was tilted by massive fraud. But the soft-spoken former ophthalmologist says believing in Afghan democracy is more sensible than supposing the Taliban — which has yet to respond positively to many offers of engagement — can be induced to make a political deal. “The Taliban is not fighting this government in order to become part of the system,” he said. “They want to bring the system down.”

Pakistan, which just agreed to set up a commission with the Afghan government to explore peace talks, would be crucial to any deal. The supposition is that its military leaders would push the Taliban chiefs who have been their clients to accept power in Pashtun-populated areas of the south, but leave the rest of the country under something like its present government.

But, Abdullah argues, Pakistan doesn’t really want an Afghan settlement, either. A Taliban-dominated territory could quickly become a base for the fundamentalist factions who aspire to overthrow the government in Islamabad. “Pakistan would like to have the Afghan decision in its hand,” he said. “But what is it they would like to see happen? I don’t think they have an answer.”

Karzai, who has grown steadily more hostile to the United States, may find bargaining with the Taliban and Pakistan preferable to more elections. “Democracy is no longer convenient for him,” Abdullah says. But Karzai still needs a U.S. alliance — in fact, he has been seeking to negotiate a formal agreement with Washington that would lock in U.S. economic and military support for years to come.

So the only workable way forward, Abdullah says, is for the Obama administration to keep investing in Afghan institutions. “What the United States must do is stand firm when it comes to issues of governance. Be consistent on democratic process,” he advises. “Put some conditions on assistance, and don’t back off.

“I know this is difficult, but it is the reality,” Abdullah argues. “You have to deal with the ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, with the local political process. This is the reality. It is a long-term problem.” There is, alas, no easy way out.

diehlj@washpost.com