New Doubts About Afghanistan

Talks with the Taliban. Pakistanis in the driver’s seat. And no drawdown by July 2011. Leslie H. Gelb on the stunning new statements by McChrystal, Petraeus, and Gates, and what they mean for the future course of the war in Afghanistan.

This week might well mark a new pessimistic high among U.S. military and Pentagon leaders about the war in Afghanistan, as well as an attendant new willingness to deal with some of the Taliban. It sure looks like the military brass most deeply and directly involved in the war are sending signals to the White House. Most certainly, it isn’t that they’re just thinking out loud. The question, as always, is whether the Obama team is listening—and what it is hearing.

“[T]here’s been enough fighting,” said General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, in a stunning interview in The Financial Times. “What I think we do is try to shape conditions which allow people to come to a truly equitable solution to how the Afghan people are governed.” Asked about Taliban leaders participating in a future government, he responded: “I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past.” The general’s openness to dealing with the Taliban sits well with the international conference on Afghanistan set for Thursday in London, where America’s allies and others like the idea of trying to settle with the Taliban.

Whatever the Obama team is hearing from these recent public commentaries by military and Pentagon leaders, it should hear this: When July 2011 arrives, don’t expect any of your military and civilian brass to favor any significant American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

Kai Eide, the outgoing U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, pushed even harder on opening the door to the Taliban. He pushed hard and publicly on the government in Kabul to do what it has been trying to do for a year, but to do it in a way that might succeed. Eide urged President Hamid Karzai to take steps that would open the way for face-to-face talks between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders. “If you want relevant results,” he said, “then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority. I think the time has come to do it.” It’s unlikely he would go this far without first discussing it with American leaders in Kabul.

Defense secretary Robert Gates seemed to support a power-sharing arrangement last week when he described the Taliban as part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric.”

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Then, even more riveting, General David Petraeus made a comparison between the ongoing surge in Afghanistan and the successful surge he led in Iraq in a way that will surely set off warning lights in a politically nervous Washington. “I have not assessed that Afghanistan could be turned as quickly as Iraq was turned,” the U.S. regional commander said, “that it will be difficult to assemble all the same factors that we were able to bring together in Iraq to reduce the violence as rapidly.” This highly sophisticated general knows that Washington politicians will hear his message: This war is going to last a lot longer than we’ve been hearing, and he knows we aren’t about to march in the streets in favor of 10 more years of combat. The general was somewhat more cautious about talking to the Taliban than the others: “It’s…not something that I would anticipate…‘[c]oming soon to a theater near you.’” This is not quite up to what McChrystal said, but it’s further than where Petraeus has gone publicly before.

Finally, and most devastating of all, was what Gates heard from Pakistani leaders in his recent visit. They told him that they would not resume the military offensive against the Taliban in the border region with Afghanistan for at least six months, which for them means more than a year. Gates and the generals know better than anyone else that the U.S. and NATO’s chances of making real and sustainable military progress in Afghanistan depend very heavily on the Taliban’s ability to keep its safe havens across the border in Pakistan. “It’s disappointing, but not entirely surprising,” a senior Defense Department official told The New York Times. Said Gates: “Pakistani leadership will make its own decisions about what the best timing for their military operations is, about when they are ready to do something or whether they are going to do it at all. The way I like to express it is, we’re in this car together, but the Pakistanis are in the driver’s seat and have their foot on the accelerator. And that’s just fine with me.” Gates may have said the Pakistanis being in the driver’s seat was “just fine with me,” but obviously it was not fine by him or any other American.

The Defense secretary and the two generals are not, by any stretch of the imagination, trying to tell President Obama to reconsider his decision to send more than 40,000 new American troops to Afghanistan. What they seem to be saying—and they do not want to be any clearer publicly than what they’ve said this week—is that the president needs to realize that security in Afghanistan is not likely to be much better by July 2011 than it is now, and that he will probably have to forgo his desire to start removing some American troops at that time. They’re also suggesting that the only chance they foresee for a significant improvement in the situation on the ground is if a breakthrough can be achieved with at least some of the Taliban. They continue to hope, of course, that their military efforts will weaken the Taliban and make them more amenable to serious negotiations. They don’t expect miracles in readying the Afghan army or police for combat, but they have some modest hope that the Taliban gambit might work instead.

Obviously, it is impossible to predict how the Taliban will react. For some time, U.S. intelligence has reckoned that a large portion, perhaps even a third or more, of Taliban fighters are less interested in the Taliban’s ideological extremism than in earning a living. McChrystal and the others’ hope is that the United States will be able to outbid the Taliban leadership for the services of some of these fighters. It’s also clear that neither President Karzai nor the Americans will know if this gambit will work until it is tried, and until they see that these fighters do not return to the Taliban’s fold in six months’ to a year’s time.

As for the Taliban leadership, the generals and the intelligence officers are pessimistic about co-opting them into peaceful political competition. The U.S. position now is that the leaders should not be approached politically until they agree to stop their violence and accept a nonviolent political road. For sure, calculations of the Taliban leadership will be affected by what the Pakistani military and intelligence operatives do to help or hurt them. But for now, they’re safe on this account.

Whatever the Obama team is hearing from these recent public commentaries by military and Pentagon leaders, it should hear this: When July 2011 arrives, don’t expect any of us, your military and civilian brass, to favor any significant American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. You may not realize it, Mr. President, but you are committed to a very long war, and your only hope of shortening this war is a lucky break with the Taliban.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.