U.S. revises its strategy for ending the Afghan war

October 31, 2011

The Obama administration has launched a revised strategy for Afghanistan that officials hope will lead to substantive negotiations with insurgents and regional support for a political end to the war.

The strategy is an attempt to fold disparate policy elements into a comprehensive package as the administration tries to fashion an exit that will not leave Afghanistan open to civil war or the reestablishment of terrorist bases.

Elements of the strategy already underway include escalation of military pressure on the Haqqani network of insurgents in eastern Afghanistan — along with an open door for the network, and other Taliban groups, to hold direct talks with the United States.

Pakistan, where the groups are based, has been offered a principal role in the negotiations in exchange for curtailing its support for them and helping bring them to the table, where the Afghan government will also have a seat.

Until recently, the administration insisted that substantive talks must be between the Afghans and the insurgents, with U.S. facilitation and Pakistani support. The new strategy, officials said, recognizes that talks are more likely to succeed with the direct participation of the four parties with the biggest stake in the outcome.

A senior administration official said that initial negotiations would ideally result in “measurable, demonstrable confidence-building measures,” including local cease-fires, “that will lead to conversations about the future of Afghanistan” among insurgents and other internal Afghan groups vying for control under a future political structure.

The strategy also includes more energetic efforts to persuade neighbors — many of which have conflicting interests in Afghanistan — to support a political resolution and contributing to sustainable economic development.

Marc Grossman, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, last month visited most of the other key players in the region, including India, China and the Central Asian republics north of the Afghan border. European interlocutors with embassies in Tehran have been enlisted to discuss the issue with Iran.

On Wednesday, officials from these governments and others, along with the United States, will attend a regional conference in Istanbul that the administration hopes will result in pledges of non-interference in Afghanistan and long-term economic and political support. The administration has already shepherded several preliminary meetings for an economic initiative it calls the New Silk Road, which would seek to reestablish Afghanistan’s historic position as the Asian crossroads.

The Istanbul conference is to be followed by a broader international gathering on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5, and by a NATO summit meeting in Chicago in May that will add a political component to plans drawn up last year for the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

In Chicago, the United States and its allies “hope to be able to say more about reconciliation” among Afghan combatants, “knock on wood,” said the official, who discussed the administration’s plan on the condition of anonymity.

This official and others acknowledged that the success of the strategy, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described as “fight, talk and build,” depends on a positive outcome for several variables that currently appear headed in the wrong direction.

On Saturday, insurgents staged a suicide bomb attack in Kabul that killed at least 12 Americans, a Canadian and four Afghans. A similar truck bomb attack Monday left three United Nations employees dead in the southern city of Kandahar.

The attacks were the latest in a series of spectacular insurgent strikes that have made reconciliation seem remote. In September, the Pentagon blamed the Haqqani network for a truck bombing of a combat outpost west of Kabul that wounded 77 U.S. troops and for an assault by gunmen on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

A week after the embassy strike, a suicide bomber killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is in charge of reconciliation negotiations for the government.

U.S. officials have said they were unsure whether the attacks were a reflection of insurgent military weakness, a rejection of talks or a burst of aggression designed to improve the militants’ negotiating position — similar to the escalation of U.S. attacks on the Haqqani network.

“I don’t think we could have any more of a robust military effort at this point,” said a second administration official of the U.S. combat effort, “given what’s been done on the Afghan side of the border over the last few weeks, given the ongoing kind of other efforts to target [Haqqani] leadership,” including recent drone strikes on Haqqani sanctuaries in western Pakistan. “That will continue as aggressively and robustly as it has.”

But, the official said, “that does not mean . . . that it will necessarily foreclose opportunities on the talk side, recognizing that we have to keep an open mind.”

In recent months, U.S. officials have held preliminary talks with the umbrella Taliban organization, led by Mohammad Omar, and the Haqqani network. This effort, this official said, is to “make sure that we explore all opportunities that have the potential to bring this to a successful resolution.”

Another uncertainty is whether Pakistan is willing or able to support the U.S. plan. The administration has concluded that Pakistan will never launch an all-out military offensive against Haqqani sanctuaries in the North Waziristan tribal region and has stopped exhorting it to do so.

Instead, after publicly accusing Pakistan’s intelligence service of aiding and directing the insurgents, the administration has offered a new compact. The price of attaining its desired position of influence over Afghanistan’s future, Clinton and others in a high-powered delegation told Pakistan during a visit there last week, is intelligence and military assistance in U.S. strikes against the Haqqani leadership, along with pressure on the insurgents to negotiate.

With trust between the two governments at an all-time low, U.S. officials expressed little confidence in complete Pakistani compliance. But they cited both negative and positive reinforcements, including the ongoing suspension of already-approved U.S. military assistance and congressional action to impose strict conditions on all forms of aid to Pakistan.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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