An Afghan deal?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

THE OBAMA administration's surge in Afghanistan is still in its preliminary stages. A much-anticipated offensive in Helmand province got underway only on Saturday with the approval of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Though it seems discordant to hear Mr. Karzai heavily promote a plan for peace talks with the Taliban, including the staging of a tribal conference within the next few weeks, is it possible the war could be ended with a political settlement before most of the 40,000 U.S. reinforcements President Obama ordered arrive? No, it is not -- which is why the administration will have to steer carefully around Mr. Karzai's initiative.

Mr. Karzai's diplomacy should not be confused with U.S. and NATO plans for Afghan reconciliation. These involve persuading low- and mid-level Taliban militants to give up the fight or striking deals with tribal leaders. Foreign governments have pledged $140 million to this effort, much of which is to be spent on community development projects. It's an important element of the counterinsurgency campaign.

The Afghan government initiative, in contrast, involves trying to make peace with top leaders of the Taliban. According to news reports, the leader of one major faction, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is already in contact with Kabul. Mr. Hekmatyar and the leader of another faction, Sirajuddin Haqqani, are warlords who were once allied with the United States in fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan; both are still supported by Pakistan's intelligence service. Mr. Hekmatyar was once an enemy of the Taliban's principal leader, Mullah Omar, so some experts believe that he and perhaps Mr. Haqqani as well could be induced to switch sides.

The first problem with this theory is that it ignores the ties that both leaders have with al-Qaeda. That is particularly true of the Haqqani faction, which is believed to have been involved in terrorist bombings in Kabul, including one aimed at the Indian consulate. All of the Taliban leaders have been under pressure to break with Osama bin Laden since before 2001, without result.

Even were the Taliban factions to split with al-Qaeda they cannot change their own nature. Mr. Hekmatyar is one of Afghanistan's most vicious warlords: In the early 1990s he was responsible for thousands of civilian deaths when his forces indiscriminately shelled and destroyed much of Kabul. Mr. Haqqani aspires to control a strategic swath of eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border. The return of either one would be a disaster for the cause of human rights or a responsible Afghan government.

To his credit, Mr. Karzai has said that Taliban leaders must break with al-Qaeda, give up violence and accept the current Afghan constitution as part of any settlement. Saudi Arabia, a potential broker of a deal, has outlined similar conditions. At best the offer may create confusion or suspicion among the various Taliban factions, without leading to any result. Yet it could also raise false hopes, among Afghans and among those Western governments eager to find an Afghan exit strategy. For them the Obama administration should offer a clear message: Handing power or legitimacy to the Haqqani and Hekmatyar factions, or to Mullah Omar, is not an acceptable outcome.

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