In December, the Red Cross warned that security in the country was at its lowest point since the overthrow of the Taliban, with record numbers of civilians killed or displaced by fighting. Insurgent attacks jumped 66 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office in Kabul, and Taliban shadow governors now operate in all but one of the country's 34 provinces. Last year 711 coalition troops were killed, the highest total in the nine-year war, and there was a 20 percent increase in civilian casualties, mainly at Taliban hands.
As such grim statistics suggest, many of the Obama administration's criticisms are justified. Karzai has never put forth a coherent vision for his country. He has allowed corruption to eat away at the gains made by development agencies, elevated his own family, and miserably failed to build a government capable of delivering services and justice to the Afghan people. Eager to absolve himself of these failings -- of which he is perfectly well aware -- he now believes that if he could bring the war to an end with a peace agreement with the Taliban, then Afghans and the international community would forgive his past sins.
Absolution may be long in coming. In my conversations with Karzai and his aides about "reconciliation," or even just talking to the Taliban, it has been painfully obvious that the Afghan leader has no clear vision or plan. How would real negotiations, rather than the talks about talks that have occurred so far, take place? What would be on the table, what red lines would both sides lay down, and how and where would the discussions proceed? In my interviews with former Taliban, it seems they have a better idea of the agenda than the Afghan government does.
It is too late, however, for the Obama administration to bring Karzai back into the fold with more promises of troops and aid. What is needed is genuine common ground: a shared political strategy to end the war. Both sides already agree on the need to win over Taliban foot soldiers and have put forward a common plan and money to do it. But there is still no agreement on trying to engage top Taliban leaders.
Of course, talks may not be a panacea. The Taliban may already be too fragmented and divided, too ideologically driven, or too controlled by other regional powers to come together around a peace deal. But what is important for Karzai, desperate to end a war that has raged off and on for the last 30 years, is to try.
So far, the Americans don't agree. But talking to the Taliban is perhaps the only option now that can put them back on the same track as Karzai -- and that is the only road that leads out of this conflict. Besides, if there is one thing that Obama and Karzai still share, it is the knowledge that the alternatives to that scenario are too horrible to contemplate.