Center for Strategic Communication

NATO forces take cover from dust as a UH-60 helicopter lands in Kandahar, July 2010. Photo: Flickr/ISAF

The U.S. appears to have given up on a political settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. If so, time to rip off the Band-Aid: The U.S. will lose the longest war it’s ever fought.

Without a settlement with the Taliban, there is no hope of ending an insurgency that withstood the U.S. troop surge of 2010-2012. The U.S. will either have to rely on an Afghan security force that has killed more than 50 U.S. and NATO troops this year alone, or end up prolonging its costly commitment to Afghanistan.

According to The New York Times, U.S. officials have given up on their on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban, and are punting negotiations over to the Afghans after the major U.S. drawdown in 2014. It’s entirely possible that’s a negotiating tactic to compel the Taliban to come to terms. But if the U.S. isn’t bluffing, writes the Times, “one of the cornerstones of [its] strategy to end the war” has crumbled.

The point is correct, but “cornerstones” is an exaggeration. Negotiations with the Taliban for a political settlement in Afghanistan have never received the attention, resources or support from Washington that the military campaign has. “There was never a really serious commitment by the Obama administration or the military,” laments Michael Hanna, a scholar at the Century Foundation who was part of a back-channel overture to various Taliban factions.

Independent groups, like Hanna joined, have tried to kickstart talks for years; these steps were sometimes welcomed by the warring parties, and sometimes rebuffed. But by February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the U.S. would accept a negotiated agreement that partially returned the Taliban to power. In Qatar and Saudi Arabia, offices opened where Taliban emissaries could meet openly with envoys to discuss potential terms. On the ground in Afghanistan, U.S. forces took heart in pushing the Taliban out of strongholds like Kandahar, which they hoped would increase pressure on the Taliban to come to the table.

But there were setbacks along the way. A supposed Taliban envoy that NATO dealt with turned out to be an impostor. Taliban fighters did not defect in the numbers that the U.S. hoped. The Taliban also wanted costly good-faith gestures from Washington, like the release of key detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. blanched.

“Negotiations are difficult because they impose costs on political costs on both sides,” Hanna observes. “But there was never a real commitment [from the U.S.] in terms of pushing the process along.” The U.S. military never explained how its campaign would lead to a settlement. “The military’s approach to reconciliation is essentially surrender,” Hanna says, “and that was never how it was going to go down.”

2010 and 2011, the years of the surge, are the critical years from Hanna’s perspective. The surge “really did kill a lot of insurgents,” and made others bitter about the Taliban leadership’s relative comfort in Pakistan. But the U.S.’s unwillingness to make real concessions to the Taliban “didn’t take advantage of that, and now we’re not dealing from the same position of strength as then,” Hanna says. And although it’s a partisan talking point, it really is worth considering that Obama’s announcement of troop drawdown dates in 2011 and 2014 also weakened the U.S. position in the eyes of a resilient Taliban enemy — especially since the only real U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been a military one.

Gilles Dorronsoro, a pessimistic Afghanistan scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees the dominos falling in the Taliban’s favor. In a recent paper, he “rather conservative[ly]” assesses that before the U.S. hands over the country to the Afghans in 2014, a quarter of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts “could fall totally — that is, including district capitals — under the insurgency’s control.” (.pdf) Seizing the provincial capitals of eastern provinces like “Paktika, Khost, Kunar, and Nuristan,” is an “achievable” goal by 2014. The most likely scenario, Dorronsoro believes, is “the collapse of the Afghan regime in a few years, after a steady period of weakening.”

If the U.S. doesn’t negotiate a settlement, then it’s got only two alternatives, neither of them desirable.

One of them is the strategy the U.S. is actually relying on: preparing Afghan soldiers and police to take over in 2014. But the fighting prowess of the Afghan troops is uneven at best, and their willingness to kill their U.S. mentors has destabilized the U.S. training effort. Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, told CBS on Sunday that while his forces are willing to sacrifice for their mission, “we’re not willing to be murdered for it.” And after 2014, Afghanistan will still require foreign donors to foot the $6 billion annual bill for all their soldiers and cops. (The U.S. Congress, it’s worth noting, is already blocking $450 million in funding for Egypt after last month’s embassy attacks, which did not kill any Americans.)

The other alternative is to render the 2014 date for ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan effectively meaningless. That means leaving behind a substantial residual American force to backstop the Afghans and provide an insurance policy against Taliban control. That might be what U.S. policy eventually becomes: U.S. and Afghan government diplomats are working out the military component of a Strategic Partnership Agreement that Washington and Kabul signed in May.

Hanna thinks it’s not too late for a peace deal. The contours of a long-term U.S. presence is a bargaining chip with the Taliban. And the military “stalemate” between the U.S. and the Taliban “has a profound psychological impact” on Taliban fighters that can also be exploited, Hanna thinks. But to actually exploit it will require a willingness to negotiate that the U.S. has never exhibited. But the alternatives to talking look more and more like losing.