David Miliband says that the time is now for the West to push for a "comprehensive settlement" that would give all Afghan groups, including the Taliban, a voice in the country's future while at the same time taking the interests of regional powers into account.
Miliband, who stepped down as British foreign minister in May 2010, is now trying to build support for a UN-managed mediation effort to end the war.
He notes that the Obama administration has already expressed its willingness to find a political solution.
"But I believe we need to take these discussions of a political framework for the Afghan campaign to a whole new level of urgency and coherence," Miliband says.
"NATO has set a 2014 end date for international security leadership across the country. But at the moment there isn't an endgame. And in my view that endgame can only comprise a negotiated settlement with all the parties to the Afghan conflict and all the neighbors," he continues.
"It's an internal settlement and an external settlement. That political framework is the only way to end an insurgency."
Respecting Afghan Independence
The British politician says that he's seen signs that the Obama administration is ready for a deal. But he doesn't think it should be left up to the Americans.
"I think has to be taken to a whole new level of coherence and effort. I'd like to see a UN mediator or facilitator appointed. I think such a person needs to be from the Islamic world. And I think that they need a very public mandate for the negotiations that are going to be necessary," Miliband says.
He says those negotiations "would have to respect Afghan independence and sovereignty and the Afghan Constitution. But I think there is an overwhelming international interest in a very public setting out of the terms of the Afghan endgame.
"Of course there will then need to be secret back channels and discussion. But I think it's also going to be very important to publicly state that there need to be safe places for all sides to conduct confidential discussions with such a UN facilitator or mediator. I think it's going to take that kind of break to put this on a new track."
Meanwhile, noting a recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Miliband says that she was right to stress that the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone. But he says that the international community now has to make peace talks an urgent priority.
"My own view is that a political framework doesn't just sit alongside a military effort and development effort. A political framework is the aim for -- or a political settlement -- is the aim to which the military and civilian effect is designed and organized," Miliband says.
"Because in the end Afghanistan is going to have to become a self-governing society," he adds. "It's not going to be governed by the formal institutions of state power in the way that our countries are organized."
Talking To The Taliban
Noting that Afghanistan -- "a deeply decentralized society" -- has never been ruled by "centralized diktat in Kabul," Miliband says one problem with the country's current constitution "is that it centralizes power in a country that is least able to cope with that. I think the West is going to have to be very, very clear not just about the need for all sides to be represented in an Afghan political settlement but also for the decentralization of Afghan society, the 40,000 villages and valleys of Afghanistan, to become the locus of a series of compromises and settlements that recognize local and tribal identity."
Such compromises, Miliband stresses, will also have to include the Taliban -- or at least those elements of the Taliban that are prepared to observe the terms of a deal. Yet he insists that the interests of all Afghans must be taken into account -- including those whose memory of Taliban rule make them deeply leery of any power-sharing agreement with the group.
"One of the dangers of privileging any individual segment of Afghan society -- and the Pashtuns represented 40 percent of Afghan society -- is that other parts of that society will feel that they're left out," Miliband says.
"One of the difficulties that we've had in so-called reconciliation of the past four years is that it's been taken to mean reconciliation only between the West and the Taliban. Whereas the danger is that ethnic strife, interethnic strife, looks more and more like civil war," he says. "And that's why I think it's very important that it's not the West making a compromise with the Taliban. This is an Afghan political settlement that respects all of the people of Afghanistan."
Miliband says that while the Taliban represents a "highly conservative strand of Islamic thought," he believes it's not the same Al-Qaeda. "The vast bulk of people who fight under a Taliban label are not ideologically committed to Al-Qaeda, but they do represent a highly conservative strand of Islamic thinking whose views, for example on the education of girls, is anathema not only to people in the West but to many Afghans as well. And I think that the regulation of that political settlement in a way that recognizes minority rights but doesn't allow them to overwhelm the interests of the majority is one of the biggest challenges that we face."
Resistance from Afghans who are loath to bring the Taliban back into Afghan political life is only one of the potential pitfalls, of course. Another is figuring out the extent to which the Taliban really is willing to drop its support for terrorism -- and, in particular, its alliance with Al-Qaeda.
Miliband says that the two groups are "separate organizations" with divergent ideas about the future of Afghanistan, and that the majority of the Taliban fighters aren't "committed to global jihad." By pushing for a settlement, he says, the West and the Afghan government can break the links that exist between the groups, and isolate the minority "irreconcilables" from those who are willing to be reintegrated into the Afghan political mainstream.
But all this, of course, presupposes that the Taliban is actually willing to negotiate. Some critics wonder why they would have any incentive to do so now that NATO has already declared that it will be pulling its troops out of the country in 2014. And so far there have been few clear signs that the Taliban are ready to talk.
"Well, I think that the truth is that there are signals in both directions. There are signals both of truculence and refusal to recognize reality. There are signals also of the desire to bring the war to an end," Miliband says.
"But I think that we will never truly know until we in the West declare our own position. At the moment, there is much greater clarity about the end date that we seek than the endgame that we seek.
Miliband says he recommends clarifying "the political endgame. And it's only when we clarify the political endgame -- what are our red lines in respective security, clarify that we are open-minded about how Afghans regulate and organize their own society and constitution -- are absolutely clear that as long as people break their links with Al-Qaeda, then their own presence in Afghan politics is something that is not a problem for us. Until we clarify our own endgame, I don't think we'll see what the Taliban endgame is."
If Miliband is right, the beginning of that endgame could be in sight. But it is still clear that, even if that's the case, there is still a long way to go.