Enough Already

It's time to talk to the Taliban.

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.

But the strategic partnership agreement is also an opportunity to offer a long-term commitment to Afghanistan of diplomatic, economic, and military support -- including a U.S. military presence after 2014 -- in return for commitments by the Afghan government to pursue specific political reforms that address its lack of checks and balance, impunity, and narrow base of support. This might provide some confidence to the Afghan people to pursue the broader political settlement that is so critical for long-term peace and stability.

Finally, there is Pakistan. Getting Pakistan on board will be no easy task. But if outreach to the Taliban is to be successful, Pakistan will have to be a part of the process. Pakistan has the ability to sabotage any long-term peace in Afghanistan by preventing insurgents from negotiating with the Afghan government and by providing safe haven, weapons, training, and funding to insurgent groups that can weaken, if not overthrow, the Afghan government. It is in neither the U.S. nor Pakistan's interest to escalate this conflict, however. U.S. diplomacy should test Pakistan's intentions and willingness to play a positive role in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the U.S. strategy as "fight, talk, and build" -- and that is exactly what the United States and its allies have been doing. U.S. and NATO troops have been fighting bravely for more than 10 years, and diplomats and development specialists have risked their lives providing crucial support to Afghans working to rebuild their society. The goal of this process should be an agreement by all Afghan parties to renounce violence, break with al Qaeda, and respect the Afghan constitution -- including its human rights provisions, notably the rights of women and all ethnic groups. Now, after years of painstaking quiet diplomacy, it is time to see if such an outcome is possible.

The current war in Afghanistan has gone on for more than a decade, and Afghanistan has suffered from more than 30 years of internal conflict. Bringing this war to an end won't happen overnight -- some elements of the Taliban continue to use their own "fight and talk" strategy, as we have seen from the recent attacks on NATO troops. But a lasting peace will not come to Afghanistan unless the United States uses all of the tools at its disposal -- including the full force of American diplomacy.



Losing the Continent

Why the Obama administration's neglect of Europe will result in a more dangerous, unstable world.

With the United States facing what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls "a strategic turning point after a decade of war," President Barack Obama directed a sweeping review of America's military around the world. On Jan. 5, Obama delivered a statement at the Pentagon to present the administration's defense priorities for sustaining U.S. global leadership.

Obama prioritized East Asia, calling it a "critical region" and promising a "strengthening [U.S.] presence" unaffected by budget cuts. The Middle East received special attention as a place where the United States "will stay vigilant." Yet Obama neglected to mention Europe. Remember NATO? Obama relegated it to one line in the middle of the speech, damning it with faint praise as a "force multiplier." The government's 16-page official strategy review allotted just a single paragraph to European matters.

Yes, the Europe of today is no longer the epicenter of global war, hot or cold, that crowned U.S. concerns during the 20th century. But it's also not a continent of Swedens. The review justifies Europe's demotion by declaring, "Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it." Yet as European defense budgets are plunging, fresh threats to European security are rising. Europe will very likely face wrenching internal transformations -- at the very moment that its long frontier, wrapping south from Estonia to Greece and then west across the Mediterranean, once again becomes dangerously and problematically porous. Russia remains more than willing to use its control over Europe's natural gas as a powerful political lever. Fraught Turkish relations with Syria and Iraq augur a tough test for NATO unity. In Libya, a fresh round of civil war could send waves of refugees -- if not terrorists -- crashing against Southern European shores. And, as Avi Jorisch recently warned in the Wall Street Journal, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb now finds itself flush with arms from Libya and cash from criminal enterprises and kidnapping ransoms. For good reason, European officials are increasingly dismayed.

What's more, Europe's economic crisis has revealed a deficit of political authority even more intractable and perilous than its fiscal one. The European Union's rush to expand to encompass the whole of Europe -- a process left awkwardly incomplete in the former Yugoslavia -- now leaves "core" member countries in Western Europe with gnawing worries over the possibility of political backsliding in the greater Balkans that would lead to renewed conflict. In Budapest, Hungarian President Pal Schmitt has ushered in a new constitution annulling Hungary's status as a republic and drawing accusations from Amnesty International that the document violates the rights of the country's citizens. Greece's latest talks with its private creditors have collapsed, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has warned his German counterpart that Rome will not tolerate steeper budget cuts. Meanwhile, Britain is stepping back from the continental mess to assume a defensive crouch. That's to say nothing of the latest round of European credit downgrades issued by Standard & Poor's. Even if a swift alteration of EU law manages to impose German-style budget targets on struggling member states, European public opinion remains stubbornly and staunchly opposed to German political dominance over the policies of other countries. Memories of Nazi occupation still rankle, and today Germans are viewed by large swaths of the continent as having benefited handsomely from favorable access to markets in countries they now want to force into painful austerity.

Seems like a fine time for Washington to weigh in with a steadying hand. Don't hold your breath. The Obama administration seems to think Europe deserves to be treated with secondary importance because it is largely cordoned off from world events. But how can such a precarious hodgepodge as Europe remain, as the new strategy review describes it, "our principal partner in seeking global and economic security" now and into "the foreseeable future"? Europe's ability to maintain its security position, much less project security, is on a precipitous decline.

A weakened, conflict-averse Europe will struggle even to respond militarily to unstable or adversarial neighbors in North Africa, the Middle East, and Eurasia. The deepening terrorist threat will siphon what military resolve there is into a preeminent urge to protect the homeland -- an urge most likely exacerbated by austerity-driven civil unrest. Not only will the rest of the world continue to imperil European security, but Europe's own insecurity is apt to spread like a contagion to surrounding regions.

If there is any silver lining to these dark clouds, it is to be found in France, the only country in Europe poised to exercise joint integrated military and political leadership. While focusing more resources on the continent as a whole, the United States urgently needs to build its relationship with France.

It is France that the British turned to for their austerity-induced defense-sharing plan. It is France that played an indispensable role in NATO's Libya operation, assuming the lead "role before history," in President Nicolas Sarkozy's words, while America hesitated and Germany begged off. And it is French attitudes and policies toward fundamentalist Islam -- though certainly far from perfect -- that stand in stark contrast with the sense of helplessness and passivity on display elsewhere in Europe. While memories of German dominance crush the prospect of Berlin's leadership today, the French history of democracy and progress remains both powerfully universal and decidedly European.

Unfortunately, Obama has failed to capitalize on the warm Franco-U.S. relationship that Sarkozy has actively cultivated. Obama has declared that the United States doesn't "have a stronger friend and a stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people," but the cooperation he has sought with the French is at best ad hoc and tactical, whether in Haiti or Libya.

Obama's hands-off approach means that Europe will drift, if not tumble, into the arms of the French. Europeans could do far worse -- returning to the bad old days of multipolar nationalist animosity or succumbing to the political domination of Russia or the economic hegemony of China. But a France that bears the burden of salvaging Europe with a minimum of strategic support from the United States is a France that will indeed draw Europe closer politically to Russia and closer economically to China.

With Germany and Britain sidelined and second rate, France and Russia will find that their traditional strategic affinities leave enough room on the continent for the interests of both major powers. This alignment will also put Paris and Moscow on a much stronger footing in dealing with Beijing. China's economic muscle intimidates Europeans and Russians alike, but it also offers real opportunities -- to be eagerly seized, no doubt, from the position of greater relative strength that Franco-Russian cooperation brings. Will America's next defense review be ready in time?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images