While President Obama is surging troops into Afghanistan and money into Pakistan, plans are being laid for a negotiated settlement to be reached before the beginning of the American drawdown in July 2011. Gen. David Petraeus's appointment this week as U.S. commander in Afghanistan increases the urgency of defining the terms of such a settlement.
For those of us who listen carefully to silence, the most interesting part of the president's West Point commencement address last month was his failure to declare any end state for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was clear he wanted "an Iraq that provides no safe haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant." But he said nothing comparable about Afghanistan.
This notable silence is rooted in the growing conviction that even if the United States and its coalition allies can succeed this summer in clearing a town like Kandahar of Taliban fighters, there is no one to hold the terrain, build the necessary institutions or accept responsibility once the military has completed its work. This spring's experiment in clearing Marja, where Taliban fighters have been leaking back in, has demonstrated how difficult the task is likely to be in Kandahar.
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which have quadrupled the number of civilians in Afghanistan in the past year, are still not confident of civilian capabilities. The Afghan government clearly cannot carry the burden.
So the administration is looking for a decent, negotiated exit. The Pakistani intelligence service would act as a surrogate (and guarantor) for the Taliban, as Slobodan Milosevic did for the Bosnian Serbs 15 years ago. The Americans would deliver Kabul. The deal might leave the Taliban in control of large parts of Afghanistan but keep al-Qaeda in Pakistan, where Islamabad would agree to deal harshly with its fighters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly enunciated her "red lines" for such an agreement: Taliban renunciation of violence and willingness to abide by the Afghan constitution (which guarantees women equal rights), as well as refusal to allow al-Qaeda or others to operate against the United States.
If the Taliban does come to power in part of Afghanistan -- say, controlling the south and sharing power in Kabul -- Afghanistan could start to look like Lebanon: Hezbollah controls large portions of the country, operates its own military forces and delivers services to large parts of the population, but the United States and other countries have embassies in Beirut, deal regularly with the government and parliament, and try to persuade Lebanese authorities to limit the sway and reach of Hezbollah.
The parallels suggest less palatable comparisons: Hezbollah-controlled territory is far from free. It is hard to imagine that Taliban-controlled territory would be more so. At least Hezbollah is contained by strict Israeli border security. Nothing like that exists on the highly porous Afghan-Pakistan border. The Taliban is far less interested in governing than Hezbollah is and is far less popular.
Hezbollah projects Iranian influence and is an important source of regional instability, training and arms to those who threaten Israel and more moderate Arab states. Even if the Taliban did not try to attack the United States, it could still prove inimical to U.S. interests, as it has in Pakistan.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai would gladly end a war that pits him against fellow Pashtuns, the Taliban's Afghan enemies -- the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance -- are unlikely to appreciate a large fraction of their country being turned over to those who regard the Quetta Shura, which runs the most important segment of the Taliban, as the ultimate authority.
Karzai recently fired two key security officials, ostensibly for allowing attacks on the national peace conference (jirga) that gave him more or less a blank check in dealing with the Taliban. The men he fired were tough Afghan nationalist opponents of the Quetta Shura and their perceived backers in Pakistan.
Who replaces them as interior minister and intelligence chief will send signals to Pakistan and the Taliban. If Karzai replaces them with people more to the liking of Islamabad, and the Americans nod approvingly, it will indicate that the door is open to negotiations.
What is not clear is whether the Taliban wants to come calling. The fighters seem to be feeling little pain despite courageous Afghan and American efforts on the battlefield. And Pakistan may not be willing, or able, to force the Taliban to deal.
Assuming negotiations start in earnest by fall, it is doubtful that Clinton's red lines can be made to hold in any part of Afghanistan under Taliban control. The only one that seems really to matter to Obama is blocking al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan. The women of southern Afghanistan already wear burqas. What will be their fate if the United States accepts Taliban control?
Other outcomes are still possible. The president should start by specifying his desired end state. "An Afghanistan that provides no safe haven to terrorists, ensures equal rights to all its citizens and maintains its sovereignty with international help but without foreign troops on its territory" might be a good place to start. But then he would likely have to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan well past the next election, as he seems increasingly to be recognizing. Petraeus would do well to insist on a clearly defined end state as he takes up his new responsibilities.
Daniel Serwer, vice president for Centers of Peacebuilding Innovation at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.