Afghanistan: Negotiating Didn’t Work—Besides, We’re Leaving

As America quits seeking a deal, the insurgents dig in deeper. Sami Yousafzai on the reaction from the field and from Kabul.

10.03.12 8:45 AM ET

Taliban officials are surprisingly subdued in response to the news that U.S. officials have finally quit seeking peace with the Afghan insurgents’ leadership. Instead of celebrating the passing of another landmark on the path to victory, they’re quietly bracing for prolonged conflict even after 2014, when the last U.S. and NATO combat forces are supposed to leave the country. The signs have long been unmistakable that the Americans and their partners in Kabul have quit hoping to make peace with the insurgents anytime soon, says a source at the Taliban’s external-affairs office in Qatar. (The office has remained open despite the collapse of short-lived preliminary peace talks with the Americans earlier this year.)

As evidence, the official cites the recent stiffening at the top of President Hamid Karzai’s government, especially the appointment of new and fiercely anti-Taliban intelligence, defense, and interior ministers. “It means the U.S. wants to leave Taliban enemies at the top after 2014, along with plenty of anti-Taliban militias,” the official says, recalling the situation in Afghanistan right after the devastating U.S. airborne assault against Taliban forces in late 2001, when a handful of U.S. Special Forces advisers on horseback rode with Northern Alliance warlords and their fighters in a triumphant push toward Kabul. “It means going back to the 2001 position,” the external-affairs official says. “We have no option but to keep intense pressure on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.”

It’s a disappointment, says a former cabinet minister from the toppled Taliban government. For a long time he had hoped against all odds that the talks might somehow succeed. “Starting peace negotiations was not an easy choice for the Taliban,” he says—particularly given the attitude of the group’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. “He’s a holy man from the countryside, unaccustomed to making deals with the United States,” the former minister says. “But the Taliban did go to Qatar for peace talks.”

Even so, he concedes, the effort may have been doomed from the start. The Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan forced the group to open talks with the Americans—and then left them to their own devices, the former minister says: “The Taliban sitting in the Qatar office had no clear agenda for peace negotiations. They couldn’t move an inch without permission from Pakistan.” With the evident failure of that attempt, both Washington and the Taliban are busy running out the clock. “We know the Americans are killing time until the November election,” the former minister says. “We’re also hoping to kill time—until 2014.”

It’s not as simple as that may sound, he says. “The Taliban are concerned that villagers in some places seem to have turned against them recently,” he admits. “But the Taliban can resist for decades. We are not afraid that we might lose our fighting strength. But we may not be able to justify another civil war.”

The threat still worries many Afghans, who have suffered more than 30 years of continuous internal bloodshed. But officials in the Kabul government are far more concerned that the Americans may stop fighting too soon. “The day Obama first announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban began counting down and cheering for victory in this war,” says a senior Karzai aide. “Such a premature and unnecessary announcement was a blow to the Afghan people’s hopes and a boost to the Taliban’s morale. Most Afghans believe 2014 is not a realistic deadline, and it’s much too early to judge the war’s outcome.”

A former senior Taliban official, now with the Karzai regime’s High Peace Council, agrees. “One mistake was that the military intervention and invasion weren’t properly done” he says. “An early withdrawal now would be another blunder. The day NATO, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], and U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, we will face severe consequences, including the fall of cities to the Taliban. After 11 years, we’re still under the potential threat that the Taliban and al Qaeda will return to Afghanistan.” At this point, however, many Americans think they have figured out the quickest, surest way to get peace: just go home. Too bad it won’t work for the Afghans.