Over the past two years, the United States has made enormous strides in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has undertaken a devastating campaign against al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as members of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This military pressure has made Americans safer -- Osama bin Laden and dozens of other top al Qaeda leaders are dead, U.S. and NATO troops casualties are down in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government has been given the breathing room it needs to bolster its security forces and its governing institutions.
U.S. policy is now entering a new and complex phase of this conflict, where diplomatic efforts in support of a robust political strategy for Afghanistan and the region will become even more essential. This effort should not become a political football in the coming election season -- it needs strong bipartisan support here at home.
U.S. political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, and our military commanders, have consistently argued that the conflict in Afghanistan will not end by military means alone. The elimination of al Qaeda's safe havens and the establishment of long-term peace and security in Afghanistan and the region -- the key U.S. national security objectives -- is best assured by a sustainable political settlement that strengthens the Afghan state so that it can assume greater responsibility for addressing the country's security and economic challenges.
This broad political settlement must include all elements of Afghan society -- opposition groups, non-Taliban Pashtuns, ethnic and religious minorities, women, and civil society. Many of these groups are currently excluded by a government in Kabul that they rightly view as corrupt, closed, and unaccountable.
Efforts to reach a settlement should include an approach to Taliban elements that are ready to give up the fight and become part of the political process. Such an approach would not -- as some have suggested -- constitute "surrender" to America's enemies. Rather, convincing combatants to leave the insurgency and enter into the political process is the hallmark of a successful counterinsurgency effort.
The decision by Taliban representatives to open a political office in Qatar presents an important opening for such diplomatic efforts. Afghan President Hamid Karzai initially opposed this new political office and recalled Afghanistan's ambassador to Qatar last month, but he has since thought better of the idea. Karzai's decision to gain support for talks with the Taliban from a traditional loya jirga was another step in the right direction.
We are not blind to the potential pitfalls of the diplomatic path. First, the Taliban is a decentralized movement with many different voices and wings -- some of which may be open to talks, and others that may be irreconcilable. An early stage of diplomacy involves testing which Taliban representatives have the authority to speak for which parts of the movement.
Afghan politics pose another significant challenge. After two bitterly disputed and imperfectly conducted elections in Afghanistan, the relations among different Afghan factions are fraught with tensions on all issues, including diplomatic outreach to the Taliban. Many elements in Afghanistan's parliament and government rightly fear that negotiations could turn out to be a back-door route to exclude other Afghan factions and return the Taliban to power. No one in Afghanistan wants such an outcome -- nor should anyone in the United States.
The Karzai government's rocky relationship with the United States poses another obstacle. While the Obama administration has expressed great frustration with the Karzai government over its high-levels of corruption, President Karzai has made inflammatory statements critical of the United States and NATO. Discussions of a proposed U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership" have stalled over the U.S. military's use of night raids and the control of prisoners, and this dispute could have spillover effects into any diplomatic outreach to elements of the Taliban.