The New York Times reported last week that U.S. officials have all but abandoned hope of achieving a peace settlement in Afghanistan before the bulk of foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014. That's not as bad as it sounds. After all, the Geneva negotiations in the 1980s, which culminated in the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, lasted six years.
But it would be a serious mistake to give up on negotiations altogether. So long as NATO has substantial numbers of troops on the ground, it has leverage. The Taliban see those troops as their biggest threat, and withdrawal has long been the insurgents' foremost demand. What's more, the coalition has the ability to grant the Taliban a measure of international legitimacy, which the group craves.
The United States and its allies have a choice: They can withdraw unilaterally and squander their leverage, or they can engage with the Taliban and get something in return. They should use their influence to establish and structure a dialogue that could pave the way to a negotiated peace.
Despite the prevailing mood of pessimism, current conditions in Afghanistan favor talks. Coalition forces and Taliban insurgents are in what negotiation theorists call a "mutually hurting stalemate," meaning that neither side believes it can escalate to victory. In such circumstances -- which existed between Soviet forces and the Afghan mujahideen in the mid- to late 1980s -- leaders have incentives to negotiate because they are caught in costly deadlock and see limits to what they can gain from further fighting.
Some observers assume the Taliban have no real interest in talks because Western forces have already said they are leaving. Moreover, the Taliban remain a powerful force. They have a substantial operational presence in the south, southeast, east, and west of Afghanistan, maintain secure bases in Pakistan, and sustain a high tempo of attacks against Afghan and coalition forces. According to NATO, over the past five months insurgents have launched an average of around 100 attacks a day -- significantly more than prior to the 2010 U.S. troop surge.
But the Taliban are fatigued and divided. Contacts I have had with the Taliban over the past three years indicate that many leaders are wary of hard-line insurgent factions and are uneasy about life after 2014. They expect a revival of anti-Taliban forces, bloody power struggles, U.S. drone strikes, resistance from communities, and international ostracism. They are looking for personal safety, political influence, and international recognition. They are prepared to fight -- but would prefer not to.
Observers also tend to assume the Taliban would only settle for absolute power through the restoration of the Islamic Emirate, the fundamentalist theocracy they presided over in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Undoubtedly, some elements of the Taliban still have such ambitions, but there are also signs of pragmatism. In August, Taliban leader Mullah Omar said, "The Islamic Emirate does not think of monopolizing power." In September, one of the Taliban's negotiators in Qatar said publicly that their goal was not to revive the former Taliban administration but to form "an Islamic government participated in by all people, reflecting the aspirations of all Afghan people, of all ethnic groups."