As the situation in Afghanistan goes from bad to worse, the United States and its NATO partners are under increasing pressure to confront the delicate question of whether to talk with the Taliban.
With a new poll showing Afghan popular approval of the coalition effort at a record low, policymakers have good reason to reassess their earlier failure to distinguish among Al-Qaeda loyalists, hardcore Taliban, and the scores of ordinary citizens who, though not Taliban supporters, were equally wary of the long-term intentions of the coalition-backed warlords.
To be sure, the first phase of the war in Afghanistan went surprisingly well. American smart bombs and warlord-led fighters orchestrated by U.S. Special Forces teams brought down the repressive Taliban -- an Islamist regime that had usurped the name once generally applied to any student enrolled in a Muslim religious school, or madrassah.
But the organizational Taliban were never truly defeated. They were merely forced out of the cities into the villages and across the border into Pakistan. There, they become ever more dependent on Al-Qaeda and open to manipulation by elements in Islamabad's security establishment, who had historically backed instability in Afghanistan. In the meantime, ironically, the U.S. and NATO leadership contributed to the Taliban's resurgence through their inexact use of the Taliban label, unwittingly driving disparate groups and individuals to unite in a common cause.
The only way of dealing with extreme Taliban organizations -- apart from exploiting the widening rifts between them -- is to deny them havens in Pakistan and money from their wealthy Arab donors.
That wasn't the only mistake, of course. Shoddy or unsuitable post-conflict reconstruction and the failure of the UN-sponsored international effort to reconcile all Afghans, including the Taliban, with the emerging political system fueled a growing insurgency. But the majority of Taliban foot soldiers and fellow travelers were motivated far less by ideology or religion than by political disaffection with a corrupt, crony-dominated regime and outright anger at what they saw as undiscriminating and often lethal coalition provocations.
Disgruntled poppy farmers – particularly those in the volatile Afghan south, who thought their poppy crops were being unfairly singled out for destruction -- were among the many who joined the Taliban ranks. Friends and relatives of innocent victims of coalition air strikes -- which killed or injured some 2,000 such civilians in 2008 alone -- added to the growing pool of supporters and recruits. And the Taliban offer of a regular paycheck was a further inducement to join the insurgency. Time To Change Tack
Now that Washington is pressing for reforms within the Kabul government, it is also beginning to review some of its past mistakes.
The head of the United States military's Central Command, General David Petraeus, was ahead of the curve in supporting the idea of reaching out to some Taliban. "If there are people who are willing to reconcile [with the government], then that would be a positive step in some of these areas that have actually been spiraling downward," Petraeus said last October.
But negotiating with the Taliban will require great caution and discrimination. Holding formal talks with organizational Taliban -- including Mullah Muhammad Omar's Quetta-based shura, or leadership council -- would almost certainly prove counterproductive, since the shura would probably demand the departure of foreign forces as a precondition for any meaningful give and take.
Even more extreme Taliban organizations, such as the network run by former mujahedin and Taliban leader Jalauddin Haqqani and his son, are now so deeply enmeshed with Al-Qaeda and its global jihad that any talk of compromise would be out of the question. Most probably the only way of dealing with these organizations -- apart from exploiting the widening rifts between them -- is to deny them havens in Pakistan and money from their wealthy Arab donors.
Far more likely to succeed, however, would be a concerted effort to woo the generic Taliban and bring them back into the political mainstream. The case of Mullah Abdul Salaam best illustrates such an approach. Once a Taliban commander fighting in volatile southern Helmand Province, Salaam accepted a British offer of a role in local reconstruction efforts if he laid down his arms. He is currently the administrator of the district of Musa Qala, a region that is now largely free of Taliban influence.
An expanded, UN-led program modeled on the British one could win over many like Salaam, who, instead of fighting the government, would willingly work within the system if they thought it would help their people.
Given the Taliban's cross-border nature and the fact that Afghanistan's geographical location makes it impossible to solve all problems internally, any strategy for dealing with the Taliban will have to address the historic marginalization of the Pashtun border region spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S.-led international diplomatic and development efforts should aim at transforming this region in a way that makes both Islamabad and Kabul see it as a bridge for cooperation, rather than as a source of discord and division.
At the very least, leaders in both countries must agree to desist from sponsoring armed proxies and their covert war. The ferocity of the cross-border Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency has already drawn presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai closer. Now they should expand the peace jirga initiative beyond reconciliation with the Taliban to include a comprehensive settlement between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Just as important is coordinated diplomacy addressing the competing interests of Afghanistan's closest neighbors and more distant regional powers. The immediate challenge facing Richard Holbrooke in his role as the new special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan is to lead all U.S. agencies and U.S. allies toward adopting a common strategy in Afghanistan. But his success will also depend on his ability to forge a common understanding not only between Islamabad and Kabul, but also with Tehran, New Delhi, Riyadh, Beijing, and Moscow. Some of these powers still engage in zero-sum games in Afghanistan and have reservations about the real NATO and U.S. goals in the region.
For any of this to happen, though, basic security is essential. A surge of U.S. forces will be crucial in the short term -- not only to regain the momentum in those areas where fighting is most intense, but also to limit the civilian casualties that result from the dependence on drone-guided missiles and aerial bombardment.
Ideally, such a surge would be accompanied by a renewed drive to build up the now 80,000-strong Afghan Army. In addition to providing the only lasting source of military security, a strong Afghan force would help forge a true Afghan national identity transcending regional and tribal loyalties. As both an employer and a school for nationhood, the Afghan Army could help transform many would-be Taliban into loyal, law-abiding citizens.
Jay Tolson is director of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom and Abubakar Siddique is a senior correspondent at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.