John Kerry: "Very active" efforts underway to reach settlement with Taliban

Skip ahead to 2:30 as he breaks some news — or does he? His description of a settlement is loaded with caveats, which puts it in line with what Obama, McCain, and even Petraeus were saying two years ago. Essentially, if there are members of the Taliban who are reconcilable, we’ll reconcile. Are there? Petraeus was asked about that literally yesterday and hedged by saying it’s not so much a question of what he thinks (although he urges people to keep an “open mind”), it’s a question of what the Afghan government wants. And Karzai very clearly wants to talk. So much so, in fact, that he’s had top advisors and coalition partners quit on him because of it. Supposedly he’s lost faith in NATO’s ability to keep the Taliban in check and is looking to neutralize them via a deal — negotiation from weakness, in other words — but the silver lining in that is that maybe he’ll think better of it if the big Kandahar offensive this fall goes well.

In the meantime, let’s check the history books. How have recent “peace treaties” with the Taliban worked out? Tom Malinowski, director of Human Rights Watch, remembers:

But before resigning ourselves to compromising our principles for peace, we must ask: Would such a trade-off bring the security it promises? This is where the realist argument collapses.

The same argument, after all, was made by Pakistan when it negotiated its 2008 settlement with the Taliban, giving it control of Swat Valley in exchange for pledges to recognize the writ of the central government and let women work without fear. The Taliban broke those promises; Pakistanis were horrified by images of women being whipped and schools being torched. Within months, the Pakistani army launched a massive military operation to retake what it had given away…

The same is likely to happen in Afghanistan if those Taliban leaders who have committed the worst atrocities are given control over the communities they terrorized. Images of abuses against women are likely to be broadcast around the world, raising the painful question of whether this is what foreign and Afghan troops sacrificed for. There could be retribution against perceived U.S. and government collaborators, and people fleeing areas where insurgents are given power. Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities (who together constitute a majority) are especially fearful of a deal that increases the Taliban’s influence; many Afghans believe that a hasty process could lead to a broader civil war.

I.e. there may be individual members of the Taliban who are reconcilable, but not the movement as a whole. As a gloss on his point, take five minutes and read Bill Roggio’s analysis last year of the latest in a series of dopey peace accords between Pakistan and the Taliban. A sneak preview of Afghanistan?

The past peace agreements, which were started under former President Pervez Musharraf’s regime in 2004, have served only to grant the Taliban the time it needed to regroup from fighting with the Pakistani military. While the military has been unable or unwilling to dislodge the Taliban from its safe havens, the Taliban had little time to recoup losses and coordinate efforts. The peace agreements gave the Taliban the respite needed to reorganize.

During the “peace periods” the Taliban would use the time granted to add new recruits, rest and re-arm its forces, and consolidate control over the new-found territory. The peace agreements also served to embolden and restore the morale of the Taliban while demoralizing those who fought against the Taliban and live in the regions. The Taliban would conduct ruthless purges of anyone expected of supporting the government. Hundreds of tribal leaders and others have been murdered and often were mutilated. Almost all would have notes labeling them as “US spies” pinned to their chests.

With opposition to the war at an all-time high and bound to turn more ferocious if Democrats lose the House in the fall, there’s only so much leverage Obama has here. Presumably his and Petraeus’s thinking in kinda sorta supporting Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban is that by playing along we at least get some input on the terms. It’s depressing, though, to think that circumstances have reached the point where a leader as weak and corrupt as Karzai can drive U.S. policy on an issue as momentous as this. The tail wags the dog.