Despite the American-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban resistance endures. It is not realistic to think it can be eradicated. Efforts by the Afghan government, the United States and their allies to win over insurgents and co-opt Taliban leaders into joining the Kabul regime are unlikely to end the conflict.
The current strategy of “reintegration” may peel away some fighters and small units, but it does not provide the political resolution that peace will require.
Neither side of the conflict can hope to vanquish the other through force. Meanwhile, public support in Western countries for keeping troops in Afghanistan has fallen. The Afghan people are weary of a long and debilitating war.
For their part, the Taliban have encountered resistance from Afghans who are not part of their dedicated base when they have tried to impose their stern moral code. International aid has improved living standards among Afghans in areas not under Taliban control. That has placed new pressure on the Taliban, as has an increasing ambivalence toward the Taliban in Pakistan.
The stalemate can be resolved only with a negotiated political settlement involving President Hamid Karzai’s government and its allies, the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan, and other regional and international parties. The United States has been holding back from direct negotiations, hoping the ground war will shift decisively in its favor. But we believe the best moment to start the process toward reconciliation is now, while force levels are near their peak.
For the insurgents, the prospects for negotiating a share of national power are not likely to improve by waiting until the United States withdraws most combat forces by the end of 2014; on the contrary, the possibility that Americans might find a way to maintain an enduring military presence past 2014 suggests that perhaps the only way they can truly get the Americans out is with a negotiated settlement.
A peace settlement would require a domestic element — a political order broadly acceptable to Afghans — and an international element: severing Taliban ties to Al Qaeda and containing rampant drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan. Both elements would need to be negotiated along parallel tracks.
None of it will be easy: Afghans will have to allow for fair representation of the Taliban in central and provincial governments; get the Taliban to abide by election results; determine the proper role of Islamic law in regulating dress, behavior and the administration of justice; protect human rights and women’s rights; decide whether and how to bring perpetrators of war atrocities to justice; and incorporate some Taliban fighters into police and security forces. A guaranteed withdrawal of foreign forces, as the insurgency has demanded, would almost certainly be part of a deal.
As chairmen of an Afghanistan task force with 15 members from nine countries, organized by the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan research institution, we had confidential conversations for nearly a year with dozens of people from almost every side of the conflict.
Attention has rightly focused on the conflicting views about negotiating peace with the Taliban among Mr. Karzai’s supporters, disaffected northerners and other groups in Afghan society, not to mention hesitation in the international community. But there is considerable division within the insurgency too.
The insurgency is not as fragmented as the old anti-Soviet mujahedeen alliance was, but it is hardly monolithic, as we learned from conversations with Taliban field commanders and individuals close to the Quetta Shura, which is made up of Taliban leaders loyal to Mullah Muhammad Omar; the Haqqani network, an insurgent group allied with the Taliban; and the Hezb-i-Islami group, which is led by the longtime mujahedeen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Some of the people we interviewed stuck to hard-line positions: “There is nothing to negotiate,” “Foreigners just need to leave Afghanistan,” “This is our country,” and so on. But others engaged in a give-and-take, making clear they wanted to see an end to violence and a start toward serious talks for peace.
For example, an adviser to the Haqqani network told us it was operationally independent but recognized the authority of Mullah Omar — and therefore could not negotiate separately with the Karzai government and the American-led coalition. Yet we were also told that the network was eager to engage in “friendly” dialogue.
Contrary to popular view, Pakistan cannot unilaterally dictate the outcome. Pakistanis told us they were finding it increasingly difficult to prevent the Afghan conflict from fueling extremist violence in their country. Pakistani security officers who have provided long-time support for the Taliban run the risk of events getting beyond their control.
A neutral international facilitator is needed to begin explorations with all potential parties toward negotiation. The United Nations could appoint a facilitator. Or a facilitator could be a group, an international organization, a neutral state or a group of states. A settlement would require international guarantees, aid, peacekeeping and enforcement of the agreement.
The international community has confronted equally intractable conflicts in Cambodia, Bosnia and elsewhere and, with unity of purpose, resolved them. Afghanistan is a particularly challenging case, but it is not hopeless.
Lakhdar Brahimi, a former United Nations special representative for Afghanistan and Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador and under secretary of state.