With the death of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration has at last been freed to acknowledge that there will be no military solution. What is needed, as the president told the BBC on the eve of last week’s visit to London, is a new political settlement for Afghanistan. It was a tacit acceptance of what America’s greatest contemporary diplomat—my late friend, colleague, and sparring partner Richard Holbrooke—often said: we are attacking the wrong enemy in the wrong country. The real enemy is Al Qaeda, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, in dozens of other places in the Middle East, and even in some of the great cities of the West. However much we may dislike the Taliban’s social agenda, they are not global jihadists. Their only real quarrel with the West is the presence of our forces in their homeland.
None of that is to say we should withdraw unconditionally. A serious peace deal will be hard work. For better or worse, the West’s economic and political realities will allow only three years or so to pull all its forces out of combat in Afghanistan. Negotiating a sustainable new settlement will be like running a marathon in the time of a 10,000-meter race. It’s about much more than talking to the Taliban. The process should resemble a double-decker bus. On the lower deck should be assembled all the main parties to the civil conflict that has blighted Afghanistan since before the 1979 Soviet invasion. On the upper deck should ride all the regional parties to the dispute, the neighbors and near neighbors, all of whom have their clients within the country. The only way to avoid another round of the Great Game is to include Pakistan, India, China, Russia, the ’stans of Central Asia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and, yes, Iran, as stakeholders. None of them has anything to gain from an Afghanistan in anarchy, exporting drugs and refugees and terrorism.