Amid the scandal that felled David Petraeus and engulfed Gen. John Allen, public attention has focused ever so briefly on the continuing war in Afghanistan. Yet, as the United States slides toward an open-ended military commitment to the country -- and Afghanistan slides ever closer to full-scale civil war -- scrutiny of our abundant failures there has not increased.
This follows a familiar, but depressing pattern. During the 2012 campaign, Afghanistan received barely any mention by either presidential candidate. Troops were coming home, the Republicans couldn't find much traction criticizing administration policy, and even the president's liberal critics were seemingly more enraged by his drone policy in Pakistan than a war that has killed more than 1,000 soldiers -- and countless Afghan civilians -- since President Obama took office.
In retrospect, this was probably a good thing for Obama, since over four years of his presidency there has been no single policy more chronically adrift and more poorly handled than Afghanistan. In December 2009, Obama handed responsibility of the war to the generals and their star-crossed dreams of population-centric counterinsurgency. Despite some near-term tactical successes, their failure to account for a resilient and tenacious insurgency, a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan, and an ineffectual partner government has led to stalemate.
But with his final election behind him, Obama has an opportunity to plot a new course -- toward a political settlement with the Taliban.
During the campaign Obama and Biden regularly said the war in Afghanistan was winding down and troops were coming home in 2014. There was some truth to this statement as undoubtedly there will be many fewer American troops in the hinterlands of southern and eastern Afghanistan. But it also covers up some unpleasant truths -- like the fact that counterterrorism operations will almost certainly continue, and that a U.S. presence, as large as 25,000 troops, will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in his confirmation hearing Thursday morning to become the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledged as much, noting that counterterrorism operations will continue after 2014.
In other words, contrary to campaign trail protestations, the Obama administration has put the country on the path toward an enduring military commitment in Afghanistan. But if the last four years have shown us anything, it is that there is no military solution to the war. Rather, this complex conflict, which includes elements of a civil war, a foreign intervention, and a proxy conflict, will require a political settlement and acceptance by the United States and Kabul that the Taliban must be given the opportunity to play a role in the country's political life. To some, the notion might seem heretical, particularly considering the Taliban's obscurantist views, their atrocious record while in power, and their continued brutal insurgency. But the Taliban is not going away. They reflect a genuine strain of Afghan society. Better that their ideas be tested in a political forum than imposed from the battlefield.
While the Obama administration has rhetorically embraced the idea of political reconciliation, it has expended far too little political capital to make it an actual priority. If the United States is serious about leaving Afghanistan in better shape, it must take a number of key steps in the next few weeks and months.
First, the United States must shed any pre-conditions for talks and sit down in earnest with the Taliban. While there have been numerous contacts and talks about talks, U.S. dialogue with the Taliban and its representatives has lacked presidential commitment. Further, these efforts have been disconnected from war fighting and planning. For three years -- time that could have been devoted to pursuing a political settlement -- the United States has consistently and unsuccessfully sought to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. That myopic approach must end.