NYT: NATO escorting top Taliban leaders to Kabul for peace talks

Not Mullah Omar — he’s been cut out of the process — but a bunch of others, including members of the Taliban leadership council (the Quetta shura) and the Haqqani network. WaPo first reported two weeks ago that “peace” talks were ongoing, but it was unclear whether they were serious and whether the Haqqanis were involved. Answers to both questions: Yes, sort of.

Talks to end the war in Afghanistan involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership, who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops, officials here say…

American officials said last week that talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders were under way. But the ranks of the insurgents, the fact that they represent multiple factions, and the extent of NATO efforts to provide transportation and security to adversaries they otherwise try to kill or capture have not been previously disclosed.

At least four Taliban leaders, three of them members of the Quetta shura and one of them a member of the Haqqani family, have taken part in discussions, according to the Afghan official and a former diplomat in the region…

The discussions appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan’s leaders, who are believed to exercise a wide degree of control over the Taliban’s leadership. The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan, which Mr. Karzai’s government fears will exercise too much influence over Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw.

At the White House’s request, the Times is withholding the names of the Taliban leaders involved in negotiations because, you see, Pakistani intelligence will have them killed if they find out who they are. (Says an Afghan official, “The ISI will just eliminate them.”) In fact, don’t be surprised to find stories on the wires over the next few weeks about Taliban capos disappearing or dying in murky circumstances: The last time a Taliban leader ended up trying to talk to the U.S. without Pakistani permission, he ended up under house arrest. This time, if the talks are as serious as the Times claims, the punishment will be harsher. Since not every jihadi faction (starting with loyalists to Mullah Omar) is party to these negotiations, I assume the Times is right that Petraeus is using these talks to try to drive a wedge among the enemy. Which would make sense given his new strategy in Afghanistan — i.e. directing massive firepower at the enemy on the one hand, replete with hundreds of special ops raids on Taliban commanders and a 50 percent increase in air raids on Taliban positions, and outreach to the enemy for a negotiated political settlement on the other. Carrot and stick, in other words. Or, as David Ignatius calls it, talk and shoot:

The diplomatic side of this game depends on Petraeus’s ability to pound those who resist — with devastating firepower. That’s why he has been pushing Pakistan so hard to step up its operations against the Haqqani network, sheltered in the tribal areas of the northwest, and against the Quetta Shura Taliban fighters, who operate from Baluchistan in Pakistan’s southwest.

Interestingly, as Petraeus pushes his talk/shoot offensive, we’re hearing less about the counterinsurgency strategy that supposedly was his great contribution to military doctrine. Though Petraeus helped write the doctrine in 2006 while he was on a stateside tour as commander at Fort Leavenworth, it is a more basic approach than the wily strategy he has actually used both in Iraq and Afghanistan…

But the real action has been “enemy-centric” — in stepped-up operations to capture or kill Taliban leaders, along with support for Karzai’s attempt to cut a political deal with them. President Obama, having signed off in December on the counterinsurgency approach, is now watching his commander execute a strategy whose biggest successes have come from hard-nosed counterterrorist tactics — the midnight raid, kick-down-the-door ferocity of the Joint Special Operations Command.

Fred Kaplan wrote about the same strategic development at Slate a week ago. CBS describes it as Petraeus trying to kill his way out of the war, which is obviously a simplification but contains a kernel of truth: Not only is The One’s July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawal approaching, but Petraeus knows that public support for continuing the war much longer is flagging and unlikely ever to recover. His only option while he’s on the clock is to punish the Taliban so egregiously that they beg for a settlement, even though both sides know that the “settlement” will be largely a face-saving gesture aimed at letting the U.S. leave from a position that looks like strength.

As always, as always, the wild card is Pakistan. I have no idea why either side here thinks a deal is sustainable if Pakistan is cut out of it. They have all sorts of material and ideological leverage over the various jihadist outfits in Afghanistan; if they want to play spoiler, whether by killing the conciliators, arresting them, buying them off, or punishing them in some other way, there’s no reason I know of to think they won’t. In fact, as this news is breaking at the Times tonight, two other stories about Pakistan are swirling online: The Guardian reported this morning that Pakistani intelligence had a major role in the Mumbai terror mega-attack two years ago that killed 160 people and CNN cited a NATO source for the claim that Bin Laden and Zawahiri are living in comfort in northwest Pakistan, sheltered by local jihadis — and ISI. Unless and until the jihadist elements of ISI are neutralized, whether by coalition espionage or by some sort of internal Pakistani purge, I don’t know why anyone should take these peace talks seriously. But then, I also don’t know why Obama hasn’t been bolder in threatening to bring India into Afghanistan in order to check Pakistani ambitions. That’s what this is all about, after all — Pakistani fear of its neighbor. If The One’s thinking is that it’s simply too risky to promote that kind of tension between two nuclear-armed enemies, okay, but in that case we’re really just wasting time. Until ISI has a reason to play nice in Afghanistan and not turn it into another fanatic Islamist client state to check India, it won’t.