With war fatigue growing and an election looming, the Obama administration has bumpily embarked on its endgame in Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, closed-door strategizing over Taliban peace talks, the pace of NATO’s combat handover and withdrawal, and the future of U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan have suddenly become part of the public and political debate.
But revelations about plans already in motion have emerged sooner than the administration has been prepared to explain them, complicating efforts to turn them into a coherent whole and build support.
“There are people at every piece of this — the Taliban, Islamabad, Kabul and Washington” — who object to or are trying to influence elements of the emerging strategy, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more candidly. “They use leaking as a tool.”
Last week, days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed transitioning combat responsibilities to Afghan forces a full year ahead of NATO’s schedule, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters that the administration anticipated doing just that.
U.S. and Afghan military forces on the battlefield responded with open concern that they weren’t ready for an early turnover. At the White House, aides grumbled that only President Obama could announce a new timetable and that he wouldn’t be addressing the issue until a NATO summit in May.
Panetta’s comments also poured fuel on an ongoing debate within the administration’s national security team over the right balance between talking to the Taliban and fighting them, even as the troop-heavy counterinsurgency argument that won Obama’s approval two years ago has shifted in favor of those who advocated a sleeker counterterrorism force.
Some senior officials privately echoed Republican critics, who argue that an earlier end to the combat mission — or even public discussion of one — would weaken the administration’s hand as State Department and National Security Council officials prepare for another meeting with Taliban representatives this month in Qatar, and as the military girds for this summer’s fighting season.
With the election less than a year away, the administration has denied any domestic political calculus. Officials have said, however, that they think Americans are tired of the financial and human cost of the war and would welcome an exit strategy so long as they believed it ensured U.S. national security.
Opinion surveys show strong support for an early end to the Afghan war, and the GOP presidential field has failed to find a coherent message in opposition.
Nonetheless, the welter of revelations over talks with the Taliban has angered lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In appearances before Congress last week, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and CIA Director David H. Petraeus were pressed on the divergence between administration public claims of major battlefield progress, and classified intelligence assessments describing a stronger and more confident Taliban fighting force.
Senators from both parties expressed concern during a classified White House briefing Tuesday on the proposed transfer of five Taliban leaders detained at Guantanamo as part of a peace deal. The administration, which is required to give Congress 30 days’ notice before moving a prisoner, had previously classified all five as too dangerous to leave the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
“Given the fact that after the negotiations started, [the Taliban] were committing acts of political assassination to undermine all of the work, all of the sacrifice of the United States military and intelligence forces on the ground . . . some of us might get a little cranky about what we’re doing when we talk about reconciliation” with the insurgents, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Petraeus at a Thursday hearing.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear Saturday she did not intend to clear up the confusion. “I am not going to go into any details about what we are or are not prepared to do, because we are just at the beginning of this process of exploration whether or not there is an opportunity to bring about an end to the conflict through a political solution,” Clinton told reporters in Munich, where she and Panetta were attending an international security conference.
“There will continue to be all kinds of speculation about what is or is not happening,” Clinton said.
Clinton, considered a relative hard-liner on the military side of the Afghan equation, has also been at the forefront in pushing for Taliban talks as part of a strategy she has called “fight, talk, build.” The White House plans to seek NATO agreement on a comprehensive way forward in May.
“We’re trying to meld the military and political sides into one policy,” said a second senior administration official. “There’s not less fighting; they’re fighting as much as possible. But the talking is happening at the same time.”
“On the political track, there’s a hugely realistic view that this thing has a 7 or 8 percent chance of succeeding. There’s no sense that we’re going to put all our eggs in this basket,” this official said of negotiations.
Since details of the talks emerged in December, critics and complications have far outnumbered supporters. A tentative deal to allow the so-called Quetta Shura, the Taliban umbrella organization headed by Mohammad Omar, to open a negotiating office in Qatar was set aside when President Hamid Karzai refused to endorse it.
Other elements of the agreement included the transfer of the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners to house arrest in Qatar. For their part, U.S. officials insisted the Taliban issue a statement renouncing international terrorism and endorsing the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Karzai has since given his blessing to U.S. talks and the Taliban’s Qatar office. But presidential aides have continued to denounce the U.S.-Taliban meetings and said the administration was working behind Kabul’s back. U.S. officials said they were engaged only in developing “confidence-building measures” to prepare the ground for direct negotiations between Karzai's government and the Taliban.
U.S. and Afghan officials separately held meetings with Hezb-e-Islami, a separate Afghan insurgent group. The group’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, told the BBC last week that talks with the Taliban outside the country would fail unless all factions were included.
Karzai aides have said he was thinking of starting his own negotiations with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. Despite their own strained bilateral relations, the Afghan and Pakistani governments found common cause in feeling cut out of the U.S. talks, and Islamabad announced high-level visits to both Kabul and Qatar.
Pakistani officials have said negotiations will fail unless “all groups” are included, referring to the Haqqani network of militants that is Islamabad’s favored faction.
The Taliban, which has surprised administration officials by publicly acknowledging the talks, angrily denied a report Friday that Omar wrote to President Obama last summer to complain about their slow pace. U.S. officials said the unsigned missive was handed to administration negotiators by Mohammed Tayeb al-Agha, Omar’s representative in the talks.
Last month, Marc Grossman, the administration’s diplomatic point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveled to Kabul to ensure Karzai’s support and to issue public statements reiterating the terrorism denunciation that is the Taliban’s part of any initial bargain.
Karzai then embarked on a tour of European governments, while Grossman traveled to Qatar, where he met with Taliban representatives who have already set up residence there in anticipation of the office they hope to open. After the meeting, Grossman stopped in Rome to brief Karzai on the talks. Karzai flew to Paris and endorsed Sarkozy’s call for an early end to NATO combat operations.
The administration says no military decisions will be made before the NATO summit. On the negotiating front, it interprets the myriad moving parts as progress. “A year ago,” the first senior official said, “nobody was talking about a peace process. You have to say that today, lots of people are talking about an Afghan peace process. No one knows how all this will turn out.”