A sensible way forward for the U.S. in Afghanistan

As President Obama’s July deadline to begin drawing down troops from Afghanistan approaches, the debate in Washington is focused almost exclusively on how rapidly the U.S. military presence should be reduced. But the emphasis on troop levels ignores the more important question of what the administration’s political strategy should be for ending the war.

There is no question that the U.S. must leave Afghanistan eventually. But withdrawal must be done in a way that prevents chaos and ensures that America’s interests in the region are protected. Current U.S. military tactics, however, are often operating at cross-purposes to the establishment of an effective political strategy for ending the war — a political strategy that to date has been poorly constructed.

Supporters of the current approach argue that the military campaign is putting increased pressure on the Taliban, and that with just a little more force, we can push insurgents to the negotiating table. But this is a dubious assumption, and the U.S. does not have the luxury to see if it’s correct.

Although the Taliban presence has lessened in certain areas of the country, its members still enjoy protection in havens across the border in Pakistan. It remains a resilient fighting force able to launch sophisticated military operations, and the predatory behavior of the Afghan government continues to push a steady stream of recruits into the arms of the insurgency. Meanwhile, the Afghan army and police are nowhere near ready to independently take over security responsibilities.

Each of these strategic impediments means that the military’s recent gains on the battlefield are simply not sustainable. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has noted that the situation in Afghanistan cannot be resolved by military might alone. Yet the U.S. military remains committed to a policy that relies far too heavily on the stick rather than on the carrot.

Even though the administration has reportedly initiated secret, serious high-level contacts with representatives of the Taliban and has touted nuanced shifts in diplomatic language (such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s February speech that seemed to discard preconditions for negotiations with the Taliban), far less consideration has been given to how the United States can encourage a shift in the Taliban’s perceptions and behavior. For too long the U.S. has acted as if force is the only effective means for communicating with the Taliban.

Fighting must continue, but talking and engagement are even more urgent. Although recent exploratory talks with credible Taliban leaders represent an encouraging breakthrough, these openings could be for naught if the military campaign is not waged in concert with this political initiative.

Recent contacts made through official and unofficial channels suggest that there is genuine interest among some portion of the insurgency in a negotiated settlement. However, like any political movement, the Taliban will have to sell de-escalation and potential compromise to its own fighters and constituencies. Right now, the United States is offering little to convince Taliban followers that a political approach could achieve a realization of any of their core goals. Moreover, continued harsh military offensives hold the possibility of future ruin, as they risk devastating the ranks of potential interlocutors and radicalizing a younger generation of rising Taliban leaders.

The United States should take steps to build confidence with the Taliban, including such things as instituting local cease fires, de-targeting certain Taliban leaders and initiating selective prisoner releases. The goal would be to encourage the Taliban to reciprocate with such measures as ending attacks on civilian targets and curtailing suicide bombings, with the aim of building a modicum of trust. But the United States, as the superior military force, must take the first steps to shift from a military-driven approach to one that prioritizes political ends.

Confidence-building measures must also be coordinated with corresponding diplomatic steps. This process could be facilitated with the appointment of a neutral third party that can reach out to all sides, including to the Pakistanis, whose role in negotiations will be critical. Such an appointment is also important in light of the deterioration of trust and the potential divergence of interests between the United States and President Karzai.

Even a sincere and well-constructed political effort might end in failure, and one that seems to succeed initially could be disappointing in the long run. That’s why the United States and its allies must be prepared for the possibility of a nonnegotiated outcome that would necessitate a residual long-term presence in the country. This appears to be the intent of the Obama administration in negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with Kabul, a process that is unfolding without sufficient public scrutiny. In fact, the possibility of an extended but vastly reduced American military presence should be used as a negotiating chit, making it clear that while the United States is eager to leave, it will not do so short of a negotiated solution or a full security transition to the government of Afghanistan.

The death of Osama bin Laden has provided the Obama administration with a dramatic inflection point that could allow all sides to begin the process of grappling with what are unpalatable, but essential, steps toward political resolution. For this opportunity not to be wasted, the United States must fully commit to a political strategy and ensure that its military might is employed in service of the essential goal of ending this war.

Michael A. Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security Project and Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.

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