Could a deal with the Taliban end the war in Afghanistan?

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

THE FACT THAT senior Taliban leaders have "sought to reach out" to the Afghan government, as U.S. Gen. David H. Petraeus recently reported, is encouraging news. It suggests that U.S. military operations against the insurgents are having more of an impact than the generally gloomy Western reporting on the war indicates. A year ago the Pakistan-based Taliban faction known as the Quetta shura rejected negotiations with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai unless all U.S. NATO forces first withdrew; it appeared confident that the war was going its way. The surge of U.S. forces into its heartland around the city of Kandahar, coupled with a robust special operations campaign that has captured or killed hundreds of Taliban field commanders, may have softened its position.

There are, however, reasons for concern about reports, including one in The Post this week, that the government of Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration have begun to look to the negotiations as a way out of the conflict. Foremost is the absence of any sign that Quetta shura leader Mullah Omar and his associates are willing to meet the three conditions that Mr. Karzai and President Obama have established for a deal: that the Taliban abandon violence, renounce al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution, which guarantees rights for women.

Perhaps the Quetta leaders will come around to breaking with Osama bin Laden. But the Haqqani network, a second Taliban faction not involved in the talks, shares a base with al-Qaeda in Pakistan's North Waziristan region and appears inextricably entwined with the sponsors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Moreover, it is implausible that Mullah Omar, known for his brutal obscurantism when the Taliban was in power, will suddenly embrace rights for women. More probable is that Mr. Karzai would settle for a deal that gives the Taliban a share of power and perhaps control over parts of the country, in exchange for an end to the war and the promise of a break with al-Qaeda.

In addition to being morally repugnant, such a bargain would not work. It would be fiercely resisted by Afghanistan's Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders, and it would risk a return to the civil war of the 1990s. It would give a huge boost to Pakistan's Islamic extremists, including a faction of the Taliban that is intent on overthrowing the pro-Western government in Islamabad. It could turn Afghanistan into a second Lebanon -- where the militant Hezbollah movement holds seats in the government and controls large stretches of territory, creating one of the Middle East's most destabilizing threats.

Both Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration are right to offer reconciliation to members of the Taliban and to listen to any overtures that come from their leaders. But the two governments should agree on a firmer set of criteria for what would constitute an acceptable bargain. Above all, they should rule out allowing the Quetta shura to reestablish itself as the ruler, de facto or otherwise, of any part of Afghanistan.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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