If U.S. military commanders are right, here's how the path out of Afghanistan begins: Several dozen weathered Pashtun farmers are sitting on carpets under a makeshift tent. It's 45 days after U.S. Marines and Afghan troops have swept into this Taliban stronghold, and now the town's elders are gathered in a shura.
A tribal leader named Haji Abdul Salam presents a long list of grievances: schools, clinics, roads, money to replace the opium poppy crop that's blooming in the fields. An Afghan district governor named Gulab Mangal makes generous promises of assistance; hovering in the background are U.S. military and civilian officials who will pay the bills.
This is how conflicts end in Afghanistan: The Afghans talk out their grievances and eventually reach a deal. Money is exchanged and honor restored. Fighting often continues in the background, but most people go home until the next conflict begins.
"By all appearances, the people of Marja just want to get on with their lives," says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was an enthusiastic observer of the shura here. He assured an audience of Afghan journalists later in Kabul: "All of us want to see this [war] end as soon as possible."
The national version of this process has barely begun, but its outlines are sketched by Graeme Lamb, a retired British lieutenant general who is coordinating the process of reconciliation and reintegration for the U.S.-led coalition. He quotes a precept of military strategy to explain his mission: "The object of war is a fair peace."
Lamb argues that the first hints of how this war will end can be seen in a loose and sometimes inchoate process of signaling that involves the various Afghan parties to the conflict, the neighboring countries such as Pakistan and the U.S.-led coalition. He describes this budding dialogue as a "melting pot" of tribes, nations and interests.
Lamb says that he can't yet describe terms for negotiations and that, in any event, this is a matter for the Afghans. "We are not at the point of negotiation; we are at the point of trying to understand."
Already, the jockeying has begun over how Afghanistan will work when the fighting ends and the Americans leave. President Hamid Karzai has started talks with a Taliban ally headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Pakistanis are lobbying for their covert proxies in the Haqqani network to have a seat at the table. The other neighbors -- Iran, India and China -- are also eager to play.
The haphazard process will get another forward jolt next month when Karzai holds a "peace jirga" to discuss how to broaden the political circle in ways that might include the Taliban.
U.S. troops have won some battles recently, including here in Marja, but these military successes shouldn't mask the real challenge, which is the uncertain transition to Afghan control. To find this exit ramp, the United States must build Afghan security forces and governance structures that can hold together as Americans start to leave in July 2011.
Unfortunately, there's little evidence to confirm that this transition will work on schedule. As of now, the Afghan military and government can't do the job, and there's an air of unreality to some of the U.S. training and governance programs.
Given the weakness of the central government in Kabul, U.S. commanders are working to align American power with the most basic political structures, the tribal shuras. "Culturally, this country works," says Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the chief U.S. military spokesman here. "People sitting down together can solve almost anything."
A top U.S. commander argues that the key now in this run-up to reconciliation is to keep pounding the enemy and to avoid premature negotiating positions. "The worst thing anyone can do is put red lines on the table. Make them fuzzy blue," he says, so that the parties can bargain toward the eventual red lines of a deal.
Karzai has caused consternation among Americans recently because of his defiantly independent rhetoric and his invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Kabul. His tirade Thursday against meddling by the United States and its allies will deepen that concern. But it's not surprising that he's bristling against U.S. pressure to reform or dickering with his Iranian neighbor. Politics in this part of the world is a contact sport, and we shouldn't be afraid of Afghan expressions of sovereignty.
Lamb notes that the dividing line between fighting and talking isn't as clear as Westerners sometimes think: "Clausewitz was right, but he didn't finish his sentence: If war is an extension of politics, then to politics it must return."