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Tea With the Taliban?

By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 26, 2008

As U.S. and European officials ponder what to do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, they are coming to a perhaps surprising conclusion: The simplest way to stabilize the country may be to negotiate a truce with the Taliban fundamentalists who were driven from power by the United States in 2001.

The question policymakers are pondering, in fact, isn't whether to negotiate with the Taliban but when. There's a widespread view among Bush administration officials and U.S. military commanders that it's too soon for serious talks, because any negotiation now would be from a position of weakness. Some argue for a U.S. troop buildup and an aggressive military campaign next year to secure Afghan population centers, followed by negotiations.

How the worm turns: A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States would consider any rapprochement with the Taliban militants who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden as he planned the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the painful experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has convinced many U.S. commanders that if you can take an enemy off the battlefield through negotiations, that's better than getting pinned down in protracted combat.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the argument for negotiations with the Taliban bluntly on Oct. 9, during a meeting in Budapest with NATO allies who are wearying of the conflict. "There has to be ultimately -- and I'll underscore ultimately -- reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this," Gates told reporters. "That's ultimately the exit strategy for all of us."

Gen. David Petraeus, the new Centcom commander who has overall responsibility for the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has made similar arguments. He believes that the United States must work to separate the "reconcilables" among the Taliban from those who are allied with al-Qaeda, and draw the moderates into the government. Petraeus successfully pursued that strategy with Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq -- encouraging them to break with al-Qaeda and then forming alliances with them.

Petraeus believes that an effort to co-opt the Afghan insurgency should probably be accompanied by a stronger U.S. troop presence, just as it was in Iraq. But he argues that it's a mistake to think that there's a purely military solution in either country. "You can't kill or capture your way out of this," he explains.

A move to negotiate with the Taliban is already underway, perhaps prematurely, thanks to a quiet diplomatic push by Saudi Arabia. Late last month, at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Saudi King Abdullah met in Mecca with representatives of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who was represented in Mecca by his brother Qayoum Karzai, supported the Saudi mediation. "We're at the very early stages now, but we do have hope for the future," Qayoum Karzai told Agence France-Presse after the talks ended.

President Karzai is said to have demanded that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, publicly renounce bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a condition for further talks. A Taliban representative took this demand to Mullah Omar in his hideout in Afghanistan and returned to Mecca with a positive answer, according to a source familiar with the talks.

Mullah Omar has sent the Saudis a list of seven demands of his own, according to this source. Among the items on the Taliban agenda are a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan; a role for Taliban representatives in provincial and national government; assimilation of Taliban fighters into the Afghan army; and amnesty for guerrillas who fought against the United States.

The Saudis have proposed a second round of discussions in Mecca in early December, when the hajj pilgrimage season begins. U.S. officials are said to be skeptical that anything useful will come from the exercise, but France and Britain -- increasingly worried about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan -- appear to be encouraging the Saudi effort. Some Pakistani government and army leaders are also supportive.

It would be political suicide for Barack Obama or John McCain to suggest that America reach an accommodation with Taliban fighters who once aided al-Qaeda. But Gates notes that we reached just such an accord in Iraq with Sunni insurgents who had the blood of Americans on their hands. "At the end of the day, that's how most wars end," he said.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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