How Obama Learned to Deal with the Taliban

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

One thing is clear: the United States fumbled the rollout of peace talks with the Taliban, leading to the latest dustup with Hamid Karzai, the mercurial president of Afghanistan. But all that flying dust—harsh words, conciliatory phone calls late into the night—has obscured a more important development: The Taliban may well be weakening and worried about their future.

If true, that would amount to a huge achievement for Barack Obama, who inherited a mostly failed Afghanistan policy from George W. Bush. Make no mistake: This has become entirely Obama's war over the last four years. The president deliberated for six months in 2009, then mounted his own personal mini-surge, shifted his generals around with an almost Lincoln-like alacrity, and ultimately assembled a nearly 350,000-strong Afghan national fighting force in near-record time—a force that has just this week taken over the lead in operations across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated to have a force just one-tenth that size.

Now, after many months in which the Taliban leadership were reluctant to say publicly what they were telling Afghan officials privately—that they are getting a little weary of fighting fellow Afghans and wanted to start up peace talks—that appears to be happening, even if the process has been delayed by a new diplomatic tiff between Washington and Kabul.

It could mean the first serious sign that, after the American and NATO withdrawal of most combat troops at the end of 2014, the country could hold together after all, even with a minimal U.S./NATO presence. And that the U.S.-led "counterinsurgency" scheme could see some meager success after all. The Taliban's fitful willingness to talk would appear to bear out claims from senior Afghan officials that I heard during a trip to Afghanistan in May: that the Taliban are "confused" about their goals, beset with worries about whether they can sustain a successful "spring offensive," and second-guessing themselves about the wisdom of fighting Afghan forces directly, as opposed to "foreign occupiers" -- the U.S. and NATO.

The Taliban are clearly still divided, and the Americans perhaps a little too eager to talk, since what were once preconditions for the talks—cutting all ties with al Qaida—have now become "end goals," in the words of State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.  (The Taliban appear to have fudged that promise by promising only, in a statement, that the movement will not "allow others to use Afghan soil to pose a threat to the security of other nations.") Yet even as the tentative deal to open up a Taliban office in Qatar for talks was announced, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Bagram air base that killed four Americans the same day. Asked Wednesday whether that assault would scuttle the talks, Psaki replied: "We didn't expect that they would decry al-Qaida and decry terrorism immediately off the top. This was – this is an end result, or an end goal, I should say. It's a bumpy road. We always knew it would be."

Unfortunately several of the early bumps in the road were placed there, unnecessarily, by Washington, in what must be seen as a somewhat inauspicious beginning for Jim Dobbins, the new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's really not a great start when your boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, is forced to make two phone calls to Karzai to explain why: 1) the Americans allowed the Taliban to lay claim to being the true representatives of the Afghan government by referring to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the country used to be known under Taliban rule, and presenting itself as a government in exile; 2) after months of insisting that both the war and peace talks needed to be "Afghan-led," why Washington would announce bilateral talks between the U.S. and Taliban, cutting Karzai out.

U.S. officials say the Taliban simply lied about how they would describe their the new office in Qatar, and that Washington always intended to bring in Karzai. Even so, Karzai, who is sometimes seen as unstable in Washington, has often played a savvy game of orchestrating diatribes against the U.S. in order to solidify his domestic political base. He promptly called off not only any talks with the Taliban but also suspended negotiations over the all-important post-2014 security partnership with the United States.

Most of this was for show, but again the larger question is how much does the Taliban really want peace, and does this really represent a shift by its top leadership? U.S. officials say yes, though they're not certain. "We do believe that the Taliban Political Commission, as they call themselves -- which is now based in Doha -- are the authorized, fully authorized representatives of the movement, and authorized by Mullah Omar himself," a senior administration official said this week.  "They declare that about themselves, and that's our understanding based on all the reporting." He said the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally, is also represented in Doha.

Karzai will stay on board, despite his fulminations. He knows he has no choice if the Afghan government is to survive after 2014. But the real question is whether the Taliban are truly getting tired of fighting, as the most hopeful U.S. and NATO accounts say, and whether, as Masoom Stanekzai, the chief of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, says, they lack a "political vision" for the future other than to try to become a legitimate, and largely non-violent, political movement. No one knows, but a willingness to talk is usually a sign of weakness, not strength. And that is a good sign. So is the realistic approach being taken by Dobbins, who was the Bush administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan back in the fall of 2001 and knows all the pitfalls, despite these early fumbles. "I think we need to be realistic," said someone familiar with Dobbins' thinking.  "This is a new development, a potentially significant development.  But peace is not at hand."

True, yet something close to Obama's only real goal may be:  keeping Afghanistan from becoming once again a staging ground for al Qaida, as it was before 9/11. And that, however lacking in glory, would still be a victory. 

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.