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Finally, neither the US government nor the government of Afghanistan know for sure to whom they are speaking. There was an embarrassing incident last year in which an impostor traveled in a NATO plane to Kabul posing as an important Taliban leader. He accepted a large amount of cash, was feted by the Afghan government, until his ruse was exposed.
3. Only sustained military pressure will bring the Taliban to heel
Secretary Gates believes that there is no prospect for quick progress in any talks with the Taliban. “My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter,” said Gates. The “fighting seasons” in Afghanistan are the spring and summer which means that any pressure we can place on the Taliban before winter sets in could lead to some kind of preliminary talks. Former Obama adviser on Afghanistan Bruce Riedel describes the effort so far as “contacts about contacts, trying to figure out whether the people willing to talk on the Taliban side represent anyone other than themselves.”
“I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure and begin to believe that they can’t win before they’re willing to have a serious conversation,” said Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO supreme allied commander. But Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio says that even with the surge, we are a long way from applying that kind of pressure.
Roggio, who has made several trips to Afghanistan to report on conditions there, writes that “even with the US pressure in Helmand and Kandahar the past year, the Taliban still control vast areas of the east and north, as well as pockets in the south.” He also mentioned the safe haven given to Taliban fighters by Pakistan as another reason it is difficult to pressure the enemy.
4. It will be difficult to get any assistance from Pakistan
Why do we need Pakistan’s help to negotiate with the Taliban? The enemy’s leadership lives in the province of Balochistan in the city of Quetta where the Taliban leadership council, or Shura, meets. As recent history has shown, Pakistani intelligence has some connections to Taliban leadership and might convince the latter to negotiate with the US.
But Pakistan is still stinging from the bin Laden raid, as well as other incidents that have caused a lot of friction in our relationship. Suffice it to say that the Pakistani military is in no mood at the present to do us any favors.
Ultimately, the question of leaving Afghanistan precipitously comes up when discussing the wisdom of talking to implacable enemies whose fanatical hatred of Americans would prevent them from compromising. The fact is, the army and police forces we are training to take over when all American combat troops are supposed to leave in 2014 are nowhere near ready, and have demonstrated little stomach so far to engage the Taliban in the areas assigned to them.
This is why the initial draw-down of US forces should be minimal, as the Pentagon is recommending. The president is set to announce his decision on Wednesday, but the pace of withdrawal would ideally hinge on the success – or failure – of negotiations with the Taliban. But the political pressure coming from even his own party to speed the withdrawal is intense, making any measured actions by the president problematic.
But there is a case to be made that it is far too soon to be pulling out of Afghanistan — negotiations or not. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, writing in the Weekly Standard, make the point that if the ultimate goal of the war is to defeat not just the Taliban, but al-Qaeda as well, we must continue a high level of pressure on the Taliban in order to see our counter-insurgency strategy in Pakistan succeed:
Moreover, al-Qaeda is not finished because of bin Laden’s death. Senior leaders continue to live and work in Pakistan, coordinating operations with other al-Qaeda franchises around the world to attack Americans and America. What is the strategy for finishing this fight if we abandon Afghanistan prematurely or put progress toward stabilizing that country at risk?
The Kagans discern a connection between fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and destroying al-Qaeda in Pakistan. “Any rationalization that relies on separating those two undertakings is, in fact, misinformed and dangerous.” There is a symbiotic relationship that, if broken by a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, would make our counter-insurgency efforts in Pakistan useless.
But political considerations appear to be the driving force in our attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. And there doesn’t seem to be any stomach in the administration – or on the Hill – for much else.
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