WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – The Pentagon appears to be moving in support of engaging leaders of the resurgent Taliban who are prepared to disassociate themselves from Al-Qaeda.

While the seeds for that strategy are being planted now, the next U.S. president–be it the current front-runner, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, or his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain–will likely be advised by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the new chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), Gen. David Petraeus, to support such an effort as the most effective way to stabilize Afghanistan, where the “global war on terror” first began seven years ago.

They will also likely ask the new president to support a much broader regional diplomatic initiative designed to reassure Pakistan about its security concerns, especially vis-a-vis its longtime Indian nemesis whose influence in Afghanistan has grown substantially since a U.S.-orchestrated military campaign ousted the Taliban in late 2001.


As the predominantly Pashtun insurgency has penetrated deeply into southern and eastern Pakistan and even into Kabul itself over the past two years, regional experts here and overseas have largely concluded that the Taliban and its allies cannot be defeated, so long as Islamabad provides them with a safe haven and other assistance in the tribal areas across the border.

What precise quos will have to be exchanged for the necessary quids was spelled out in considerable detail in an article titled “From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan” published in mid-October in the influential Foreign Affairs journal by Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid and New York University professor Barnett Rubin, both of whose views about the region are highly regarded in Washington.

Mr. Rashid was recently named by the Washington Post as one of a number of key experts consulted by Gen. Petraeus and members of his new “Joint Strategic Assessment Team” that is to develop a new campaign plan for Afghanistan that is supposed to be completed in about 100 days, or shortly after the new president moves into the White House.

According to the Post, Gen. Petraeus has ordered the team to focus on two major themes–“government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war.” Those are precisely the strategies analysts Rashid and Rubin highlighted in their article as critical to achieving their “Grand Bargain.”

According to a New York Times article earlier the month, the draft of a National Intelligence Estimate–a consensus document of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies–found that the security situation in Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral.” It cited rampant corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai; the exploding drug trade that now accounts for half the country’s economy; and increasingly sophisticated attacks by the Taliban that have so far taken the lives of more U.S. and NATO troops in 2008 than in any previous year as the main causes.

At the same time, the British commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, told the Sunday Times that he did not believe the war in Afghanistan could be won. His comments followed the disclosure in a leaked diplomatic cable that Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles, had told his French counterpart that the next U.S. president “must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan.”

Both presidential candidates Obama and McCain have called for increases in U.S. and NATO troop strength, and President George W. Bush currently intends to send 8,000 more U.S. troops to join the 34,000 who are already there before he leaves office. The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, who commands a total of nearly 70,000 troops, said he will need yet another 15,000 next year.

But while those forces may help keep the lid on, they cannot defeat the Taliban, particularly so long as their Pakistani allies provide a safe haven, according to writers Rashid and Rubin, whose article criticizes the Bush administration’s “war-on-terror” rhetoric that “thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogenous ‘terrorist’ enemy.”

Those willing to sever ties with Al-Qaeda should be engaged, according to the authors.

“An agreement in principle to prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism, plus an agreement from the United States and NATO that such a guarantee could be sufficient to end their hostile military action, could constitute a framework for negotiation. Any agreement in which the Taliban or other insurgents disavowed Al-Qaeda would constitute a strategic defeat for Al-Qaeda,” the analysts argued.

At the same time, Washington and its allies should pursue a “high-level diplomatic initiative designed to build genuine consensus on the goal of achieving Afghan stability by addressing the legitimate sources of Pakistan’s insecurity,” they argue.

They call for the UN Security Council to establish of a contact group consisting of its five permanent members, and possibly NATO and Saudi Arabia, to promote dialogue between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan and Kashmir, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan on delineating their border with the central aim of “assur(ing) Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity.” The group should also provide security assurances to Russia and Iran about U.S. NATO intentions and promote regional economic integration and development.

Some of the seeds for a new strategy–particularly efforts at co-opting some elements of the insurgency–have already been sown. In late September, Saudi King Abdullah reportedly hosted a secret four-day exploratory meeting between representatives of the Karzai government and former Taliban officials and others with ties to various factions in the insurgency.

While Washington reportedly played no role in the talks, and the event may have been taken somewhat by surprise by their having taken place, Sec. Gates told reporters in Budapest that he would support engagement with any insurgent faction that disavows ties to Al-Qaeda. “There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”

Gen. Petraeus, whose courtship of former Sunni insurgents in Iraq who broke with Al-Qaeda there has been hailed as a major contribution to reducing the violence there–if not yet achieving a political settlement–has echoed that view.

Related links:

U.S. and U.K. split on Afghan war policy (FCN, 10-31-2008)

Taliban encroach on Karzai’s turf (FCN, 08-14-2008)