Talks With Taliban To Decide Afghanistan's Future?

The emerging consensus in Afghanistan is that military action alone will not win the war against the Taliban and a political solution will be necessary. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reached out to some Taliban leaders. But analysts say the Taliban and the U.S. are not ready for full-scale negotiations - yet.

If there is one thing that just about everyone can agree upon when it comes to Afghanistan, it's that the battle against Taliban insurgents can not be won by military means alone.

Instead, it's going to require a political solution. There are enormous divides between the major players, but lately there are tentative discussions about the need for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

The stated positions from all sides in the struggle over Afghanistan could not be further apart.

The U.S. and its allies demand, among other things, that the Taliban renounce violence, break with al-Qaida, and respect Afghanistan's Constitution.

The Taliban has basically one demand: the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

"The only really single objective which they can always articulate is the withdrawal of international troops," says Michael Semple, who has spent more than two decades living and following developments in Afghanistan. He is now a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Quiet Efforts To Reach Out To The Taliban

But in the past year, there have been several reports of secretive efforts to help get a dialogue started.

Last year, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting among second-tier Afghan government officials and Taliban members during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. U.S. officials also have talked about the need for reconciliation.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also reached out to the Taliban. He has had contact with some senior Taliban leaders and has suggested a loya jirga — a grand assembly of Afghan leaders — in April.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the U.S. is carefully following Karzai's efforts.

"It is not clear what President Karzai has in mind when he engages in various types of negotiations," Markey says.

He adds that "maybe it's an uncertainty, a genuine uncertainty within the U.S. administration about how far they should let this process go with Karzai, without interfering to see what emerges from it."

U.S., Taliban Wary Of Negotiations

But Alex Strick, a writer and researcher who has lived in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar for the past two years, says morale is high within the Taliban, and its leaders see no need to compromise with an Afghan government that they consider illegitimate.

Strick says that any negotiations would have to be at the local, not national, level. "I think from the Taliban's side at the moment, this is probably one of the least propitious times to start negotiations," he says.

Key members of the Taliban's leadership council have recently been arrested in Pakistan — men who were considered relatively moderate and at least open to the idea of negotiations. Militants also are being routed out of parts of southern Afghanistan by a U.S.-led military offensive.

But Strick says so far the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy hasn't had a serious impact on the group.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the State Department, says even if the tide turns against the militants, they won't try to work out a settlement. He says the Taliban believes time is on their side, and that they will ultimately prevail.

"We have seen enough evidence in the past where their belief that ultimately this is going to come to them. Indeed, Allah wills that it comes to them," says Weinbaum, now a scholar with the Middle East Institute.

The U.S. military is also using time — and an additional 30,000 troops this year, bringing the total American force in Afghanistan to about 100,000 — to gain more leverage on the battlefield before entering any potential negotiations, Markey says.

"In order to have profitable negotiations, you have to negotiate from strength. And the American sense of its strength is that it will increase as more troops show up in Afghanistan," Markey says.

Until that theory is tested on the battlefield, no full-scale negotiations with the Taliban are likely, he says. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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