U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested last week that the United States could wrap up combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2013, well before the longstanding 2014 deadline when full control is to be ceded to Kabul. Troops would remain in Afghanistan until 2014, as agreed upon at the 2010 Lisbon Summit, and would be engaged in two roles until at least 2014 and perhaps even later. One role would be continuing the training of Afghan security forces. The other would involve special operations troops carrying out capture or kill operations against high-value targets.
Along with this announcement, the White House gave The New York Times some details on negotiations that have been under way with the Taliban. According to the Times, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the senior-most leader of the Afghan Taliban, last summer made overtures to the White House offering negotiations. An intermediary claiming to speak for Mullah Omar delivered the proposal, an unsigned document purportedly from Mullah Omar that could not be established as authentic. The letter demanded the release of some Taliban prisoners before any talks. In spite of the ambiguities, which included a recent public denial by the Taliban that the offer came from Mullah Omar, U.S. officials, obviously acting on other intelligence, regarded the proposal as both authentic and representative of the views of the Taliban leadership and, in all likelihood, those of Mullah Omar, too.
The idea of negotiating with the Taliban is not new. Talks, as distinct from negotiations, in which specific terms are hammered out, have gone on for some time now. Several previous attempts have ended in failure, including one instance when the supposed representative proved to be a fraud. However, according to the Times report, the negotiations took on a degree of specificity last summer. They began in November 2010, initiated by a man named Tayyab Agha, who claimed to speak for Mullah Omar. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama regards authenticating the present offer as unimportant and the intermediary as having authority; the question on the table is the release of Taliban captives as a token of American seriousness.
The Taliban see themselves as already having made a major concession. Their original demand was the complete withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for negotiations. The talks have continued in spite of the U.S. refusal to comply. The Taliban shifted their position to a very specific timetable for withdrawal, something Panetta may have been hinting at last week, though not on a timetable to the Taliban's liking. Two more years of combat operations -- not to mention an unspecified time in which U.S. special operations forces will continue working in Afghanistan -- is a long time. In addition, the United States has not delivered on the release of the Taliban, an issue that has not emerged as a campaign issue in the U.S. presidential election.
Still, U.S. operations have become less aggressive. This is in part due to the season: It is winter in Afghanistan, a time of year when large-scale operations are not practical in many areas. At the same time, we are not seeing the level of operations we have seen in previous winters after Obama increased the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This in part reflects a realization of the limits of U.S. military power in Afghanistan. Regardless of the motive, the Taliban interpret it as a signal -- and it is understood in Washington as a signal, too.
The Pakistani-Taliban Channel
To get negotiations going, the United States had to reach two conclusions. The first was that negotiations could not happen without Pakistani involvement. U.S. accusations that current and former military figures in Pakistan maintained close ties with the Taliban undoubtedly were true. Conversely, this meant Pakistan represented a clear channel the United States could use to reach the Taliban. That channel permitted the Obama administration to conclude that it had no hope of meaningfully dividing the Taliban.
Certainly, the Taliban are an operationally diffuse group. Even so, Mullah Omar is at their center, with the political operatives surrounding him representing the political office of the Taliban. The line of communications with the Taliban runs through Pakistan and terminates with Mullah Omar. This means that U.S. hopes of splitting the Taliban politically and conducting factional negotiations are not realistic. Particularly after a series of attacks and suicide bombings in Kabul last fall, it also became apparent that the United States would not be able to manage negotiations at arm's length using Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his advisers as the primary channel.
The Pakistanis and the Taliban also had to face certain realities. The Taliban had claimed that the United States and its allies in Afghanistan had lost. This underpinned their demand for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; their offer to permit this without harassment was made under the assumption that the United States had a defeated military force at risk.