The 'Unthinkable' in Afghanistan

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, October 23, 2008 12:52 PM

When the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance drove the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001, the idea of talking with the Taliban was unthinkable. Victory would be non-negotiable, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared a month into the campaign. But seven years later, reports have emerged of talks under Saudi auspices (NYT) between representatives of President Hamid Karzai's embattled government and the Taliban and other rivals (The Independent). Karzai has repeatedly called on militants, including Taliban chief Mullah Omar, to lay down arms and help "rebuild their country" (VOA). Senior Taliban officials, meanwhile, have expressed a willingness to negotiate with military leaders in Pakistan (Quqnoos), suggesting there may be an opening for a non-military solution.

The sudden emergence of a diplomatic dialogue illustrates just how far the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan has deteriorated, some experts say. Violence in and around Kabul is at record highs (PDF), corruption is rampant, and pessimism is mounting (Economist). A still-classified U.S. intelligence assessment of the situation says Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" (NYT) fueled by drug money and a weak central government. David Davis, a conservative British parliamentarian, returned from a ten-day fact-finding trip and declared that without a new strategy, the international coalition will "face disaster" (The Independent).

Amid the criticism the Bush administration has ordered a review of its efforts in Afghanistan, looking to answer basic questions-What is the objective? What can the U.S. achieve? (WashPost)-as it searches for a new way forward. President Bush has already announced an increase in troops to Afghanistan, though some senior U.S. commanders, including the commander of NATO forces there, want more (CNN). Both men seeking the White House also want higher troop deployments there. Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders are looking to leverage Afghan tribal leaders (CSMonitor) to help drive out Taliban elements, similar to the uprising that pacified Anbar province in Iraq.

Yet second guessing among nations continues at a time when NATO commanders say the alliance is wavering (AP). Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the outgoing commander of British forces, told a London newspaper on October 6 that a military victory in Afghanistan is "neither feasible nor supportable" (The Times). A leaked diplomatic cable from Britain's ambassador to Kabul predicted that the NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan would fail (IHT). Officials in Australia (The Australian) and Canada (AFP) have also expressed frustration. In response, Kai Eide, the top UN envoy for Afghanistan, declared he was "sick and tired" of the negative talk. "There is a commitment to turn negative trends around," Eide said.

Talks with the Taliban could do that, says Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN. Speaking to Afghan experts at New York University on October 17, Holbrooke said negotiating with elements of the Taliban "would be a very good thing" if it brought them into the political process. Yet there are questions on who these talks would be with-experts say the Taliban is exceedingly fractious-and whether the sides could find common ground. Barnett E. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid, meanwhile, writing in Foreign Affairs, argue only "a major diplomatic initiative involving all the regional stakeholders"-including Pakistan and Iran-will stabilize the country. Another expert with a special perspective on the conflict-Russia's ambassador to Kabul Zamir N. Kabulov-warns of history repeating itself in Afghanistan. Kabulov, the Kremlin's top spy during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, says the United States is committing the same mistakes (NYT) his government made two decades ago-like focusing too much on the cities and underestimating the resistance to foreign occupation. "Now," Kabulov says, "they're making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright."

© 2008