Are we surprised? The Washington Post reports that the White House wants to restart negotiations with the Taliban for a peace deal in Afghanistan, and with a new if uneasy rapprochement with Pakistan, the time might seem ripe. The Taliban, however, see the timing somewhat differently:
The Obama administration has launched a post-election push to restart moribund peace talks with the Taliban, despite resistance from the U.S. military, mixed signals from Pakistan and outright refusal by the militants themselves, according to U.S. officials.
Senior White House and State Department officials reiterated the administration’s negotiating position — including its willingness to exchange prisoners with the Taliban — to a reluctant Defense Department at a meeting of national security deputies two weeks ago. …
Relations with Pakistan have slowly improved this year, capped by a hard-won deal to reopen transit points from Pakistan for the resupply of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Both sides have emphasized improvements in counterterrorism coordination, while tacitly ignoring Pakistan’s demand for a stop to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani territory.
But many in the U.S. military’s command headquarters in Afghanistan remain doubtful of Pakistan’s willingness to use its relationship with the Taliban to help forge a political solution to the war and are reluctant to include Pakistan in any of their planning for the drawdown of U.S. combat forces or for a follow-on military presence after 2014.
As a result, an administration official said, Pakistan has been getting an inconsistent message about how serious the administration is about peace talks and a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan of up to 10,000 troops.
Why wouldn’t the Taliban take us seriously? Perhaps because we’ve loudly and repeatedly pledged to leave Afghanistan, at least as a potent fighting force, no matter what by the middle of 2014. The Taliban have fought NATO for eleven years after the US demolished their tyrannical and al-Qaeda-supported government after the 9/11 attacks. Now they see only two more fighting seasons left between now and the end of American leverage in peace talks.
Why should they sit down and talk under those circumstances? They would have to agree to recognize the democratic institutions that the US and NATO have propped up for the last decade, as well as the authority of the native security forces that would protect it as the US and NATO leave. Furthermore, they would also have to accept a US presence in force of 10,000 infidel soldiers.
The Obama administration is right to seek a negotiated end to the war. Unlike in Iraq, this is a tribal conflict between Pashtuns and everyone else, and all of the tribes of Afghanistan will need to find a way to live with each other for the long run. However, the US took itself out of position to broker such an agreement with its unilateral timetable for withdrawal. The Taliban don’t need negotiations; all they need is patience. They have that in abundance, and Americans lost their patience for this war over the last few years. The only hope left is that the security forces we’ve trained will be strong enough without us to allow Hamid Karzai to force the Pashtuns to accept a settlement and power sharing along democratic lines. We are increasingly irrelevant to that outcome.