Earlier this week, I talked to Salahuddin Rabbani, head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Rabbani was in Washington to brief administration officials on talks he had just held in Islamabad with Pakistani leaders. Rabbani had asked the Pakistanis to release four senior Taliban officials whom they had imprisoned, apparently for the crime of holding peace talks without Islamabad's approval. Security officials had released one of them, as well as nine lower-level figures. Afterwards, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistani's military chief of staff and ultimate authority on national security issues, had flown to Kabul to conduct further talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rabbani told me that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Pakistanis had decided to stop obstructing negotiations.
If this is as meaningful as Rabbani hopes, it would be very welcome news for President Barack Obama, who is ardently hoping to leave behind the messes he inherited in the Islamic world in order to get on with the forward-looking business of pivoting to Asia, promoting climate change, signing free-trade agreements, and so on. He has already completed Phase One of this act of strategic extrication by removing American troops from Iraq. Phase Two will be completed by the end of 2014, when American and NATO troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan. Obama and his team are now deciding just how quickly those troops should leave, and how many should be left behind in order to train and support Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. No matter what the outcome of that debate, Obama's hopes may rest on Pakistan's calculations -- and the Taliban's.
Karzai established the High Peace Council two years ago, with the goal of reaching out to current and former militant leaders. He appointed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former jihadi leader and president of Afghanistan, as its first chairman. In September 2011, at a time when elements of the Taliban had begun talking to to American envoys in Germany and Qatar, Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber, presumably dispatched by hard-line elements seeking to sabotage the nascent talks. This past April, Karzai chose Rabbani's 41-year-old son, Salahuddin, then serving as ambassador to Turkey, to replace his father. Salahuddin, a bespectacled, soft-spoken, Westernized figure, is new to this brutal game; when we met at his hotel in Washington, he asked if I was the same James Traub who had taught his class at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs in 2008. (I was.)
Rabbani and his colleagues have had informal contacts with a range of current and former Taliban figures, and he says that he is convinced that most want to stop fighting. "The reports we have are that the Taliban leadership is now discussing the logic of continuing the military campaign," he says. Once the United States and Afghanistan signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement last May pledging a long-term U.S. role, including an ongoing military presence, Rabbani says, the Taliban concluded that they could no longer wait for the end of 2014 and then march on Kabul. Of course, that may be over-optimistic. The fighting in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating. Mullah Omar, the leader of the so-called Quetta Shura, may not bless such talks. Hardline or rogue factions, like the Haqqanis, may undermine any effort at negotiations. But it's a proposition that has to be tested. And this requires U.S. and, of course, Pakistani support.
Meanwhile, White House policy on Afghanistan has given far more emphasis to winning battlefield victories in order to force the Taliban to negotiate from a position of weakness than to ending hostilities through negotiations. U.S. talks with the Taliban ended last March when the Taliban walked out, claiming that Washington kept changing its position. U.S. diplomats, working with officials in Qatar, have tried to work out a deal to release five militants from Guantanamo in exchange for an American soldier believed to be held in Pakistan. U.S. officials made a new offer in June, and they are still waiting to hear a response from the Taliban. One figure involved with administration policy in the region says that, since the U.S. election, White House officials seem to have embraced the need for a political end-game. This may in turn effect the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. American diplomats, says this figure, "may actually take yes for an answer." Rabbani says that he received unequivocal support for his efforts from American officials.
The real wild card is Islamabad. In 2010, Pakistani forces arrested Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's second-in-command, who had begun exploring talks with Afghans. That sent an unmistakable message: Negotiations will go forward only on Pakistan's terms. Pakistani intelligence still has deep ties with the Afghan Taliban, and wants to ensure that the country retains its influence in any reconfigured Afghanistan. Pakistan has a long history of pulling out the rug from negotiations, and this could prove to be yet another feint, designed to buy time until the battlefield odds became more favorable to the Taliban. But maybe it's not. The Taliban has become almost as dire a menace to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan; and Kayani is said to have recognized that the country's economy is in disastrous condition. Warming relations with India may also have blunted Pakistani paranoia about Indian ambitions in Central Asia.
Rabbani said that Pakistan has promised to release Mullah Baradar and the other two detainees; he is now waiting to see if they make good. Pakistani officials also vowed to sign a joint statement asking the United Nations to remove several key figures from a list of terrorists, and to permit them to travel outside the country for talks. Preliminary discussions might then take place in Doha. Any eventual deal would almost certainly involve a power-sharing arrangement which could give the Taliban political control over portions of the country's south and east, as well as impunity for the militants. That would be ugly -- especially for any woman in Taliban-dominated regions -- but it's a deal I think the United States could live with. And it would give the government in Kabul the time and breathing space to slowly extend its authority and -- who knows? -- maybe even deepen its legitimacy.
And if it all falls apart? A senior U.S. government official I spoke to insisted that Afghanistan is making a transition, however haltingly, towards economic self-sufficiency, while the Afghan Army's "capacity to fight and defend their country seems increasingly provable." Though he hopes for an Afghan-led peace deal, he says, the country should remain "politically intact" even without one. But American optimism on Afghanistan has proved to be misplaced time and time again. The effort to bring "good governance" to Afghans in Kabul and in key provinces has largely failed -- which is one reason why the Taliban could reasonably believe that they will win in the long run. A report published over the summer by the Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts that "even under optimistic conditions, insurgents will dominate important areas in the east and south, and islands in other parts of the country."
If that's true, then the argument for some kind of political deal which recognizes this reality is all the stronger. (The CSIS report asserts that this will never happen.) The American imperial venture in Afghanistan has largely failed. The nation-building effort has come to grief -- not because such things are inherently impossible, but because habits and institutions develop over generations, not months. Afghan reality has proved to be far more refractory than America's military and civilian planners ever understood. It has been a very expensive, and very painful, learning process.