US eyes a 'grand' Afghan bargain
WASHINGTON - Increasingly frustrated by the "downward spiral" that the United States intelligence community sees in Afghanistan, the Pentagon appears to be moving towards engaging leaders of the resurgent Taliban - if they are prepared to disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda.
The seeds for the strategy are already being planted. The next US president - be it the current front-runner, Democratic Senator Barack Obama, or his Republican rival, Senator John McCain - will likely be advised by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the new chief of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, that this strategy is the most effective way to stabilize Afghanistan.
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 with regard to its long-time nemesis, India, whose influence in Afghanistan has grown substantially since a US-orchestrated military campaign ousted the Taliban in late 2001.
The predominantly Pashtun insurgency has penetrated deep 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 continues to provide them with safe haven and other assistance in the tribal areas across the border.
The engagement plan was spelled out in considerable detail last week in an article entitled From Great Game to Grand Bargain, published in the influential Foreign Affairs journal. It was written by Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid and New York University Professor Barnett Rubin - both frequent visitors to Washington whose views on the region are highly regarded.
Rashid was named last week by the Washington Post as one of a number of key experts recently consulted by Petraeus and members of his new Joint Strategic Assessment Team, which has been tasked with developing a new campaign plan for Afghanistan scheduled for completion in about 100 days, or shortly after the new president moves into the White House.
According to the Post, 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 Rashid and Rubin highlighted in their article as critical to achieving their "Grand Bargain".
According to a New York Times article written earlier this month, the draft of a National Intelligence Estimate - a consensus document of all 16 US 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 which now accounts for half of the country's economy; and increasingly sophisticated attacks by the Taliban that have so far taken the lives of more US and NATO troops in 2008 than any previous years.
The British commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, also told London's Sunday Times that he did not believe that 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, told his French counterpart that the next US president "must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan."
Both Obama and McCain have called for increases in US and NATO troop strength in Afghanistan, and President George W Bush currently intends to send 8,000 more US troops to join the 34,000 who are already there before he leaves office. The NATO commander in Afghanistan, US General David McKiernan, who commands a total of nearly 70,000 troops, said last week he will need another 15,000 for next year.
But while the forces may help keep the lid on, they cannot defeat the Taliban, according to Rashid and Rubin. The article criticizes the Bush administration's "war-on-terror" rhetoric that "thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogenous 'terrorist' enemy".
They argue the US must "redefine its counterterrorist goals", and try to separate Islamist movements with local or national objectives from groups like al-Qaeda seeking to attack the United States or its allies directly, instead of "lumping them all together."
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 [which] disavowed al-Qaeda would constitute a strategic defeat [for al-Qaeda]," said the two authors.
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 call for the UN Security Council to establish 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.
The group would concentrate on delineating the nations' borders with the central aim of "assuring Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity". It would also provide security assurances to Russia and Iran about US and NATO intentions and promote regional economic integration and development.
Some of the seeds for the new strategy, particularly efforts at co-opting some elements of the insurgency, have already been sown. Late last month, Saudi King Abdullah reportedly hosted a secret four-day exploratory meeting between representatives of the Karzai government, former Taliban officials and others with ties to various factions in the insurgency.
While Washington reportedly played no role in the talks, and may even have been taken somewhat by surprise with them having taken place, Gates last week 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.'
Petraeus, whose courtship of former Sunni insurgents who broke with al-Qaeda in Iraq was hailed as a major contribution to reducing the violence there - although it did not achieve a political settlement - has echoed that view.
"I do think you have to talk to enemies," he told the right-wing Heritage Foundation here last week. "Clearly you want to try to reconcile with as many as possible.'
He also told the Post last week that the problem also had a strong regional dimension that required the involvement of Afghanistan's neighbors, including India.
Petraeus reportedly promoted a similar approach as commander of coalition forces in Iraq, though the White House reportedly denied him permission to visit Damascus and channeled all official contacts with Iran through the US ambassador in Baghdad.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/)