OSLO — I happened to be in Oslo for a conference (of the very worthy Center for Humanitarian Dialogue) when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his Afghanistan speech on June 22. The next morning I sat down with Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan under the Taliban government. Zaeef (above left, in 2001) was imprisoned in Guantánamo, and his autobiography, My Life With the Taliban, is infused with an obviously sincere hatred for the United States. Though he is no longer a member of the Taliban, he is believed to be in touch with the leadership, and American diplomats, among others, now use Zaeef as an intermediary with his old colleagues. Taliban who talk may soon become more important figures than Taliban who fight.
I asked Zaeef, a burly man of 43 with spectacles and a wiry black beard, whether he thought Obama's announcement that the United States would withdraw 33,000 troops by summer 2012 would increase the chances for a settlement. "It's very hard for me to take this information truly," he said. Zaeef assumed Obama was lying. But what happens, I asked, if you see the troops actually leaving? "They have to change the strategy from war to politics," Zaeef said. The United States, that is, has to stop fighting and start talking.
U.S. troops will not stop fighting, of course. But Obama's speech signals the beginning of a new stage of talking. Peace, the president said, can only arrive via a "political settlement." Though this has long been the official American position, Obama gave it much more emphasis than he had before and spoke less than he usually does about progress inside Afghanistan. He did say that "because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made."
But is that true? Have military gains made the Taliban amenable to diplomacy in a way that they were not before? Zaeef dismissed the idea with a polemical flourish. "If you kill one Taliban, five more will come," he said. That's the party line, of course. And American military persistence may have helped persuade the Taliban that it could not simply wait until the foreign troops went home. But Taliban officials have been talking about a political settlement for the last two years or so, and NATO allies have been urging the United States to take the offers seriously; it is the American position that has changed. Moreover, the vaunted -- and genuine -- military gains in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have been offset by growing Taliban control of the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, as well as mounting violence in the north perpetrated by both Taliban-affiliated fighters and groups such as Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group associated with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
And the military effort has shown far more signs of success than either the massive campaign to train Afghan security forces or the civilian side of the counterinsurgency effort. As the Afghanistan expert Gilles Dorronsoro writes in a recent report titled "Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition," U.S. influence over Afghan governance is now "negligible," while "there is nothing to indicate that the army will be able to act autonomously over a large part of the country's territory in two or three years." Dorronsoro argues that the American position has grown weaker rather than stronger; even if this is unduly pessimistic, it's hard to take seriously Obama's implication that the United States has waited until the balance of power has tipped its way before beginning talks.