WASHINGTON -- As the Afghan war’s 10th fighting season gets underway, both U.S.-led troops and Taliban insurgents are battered and bloodied. Military and civilian casualties are piling up on both sides. But prospects for peace talks seem remote, and international diplomats and others say any actual settlement is years away.
And yet, conditions for negotiations seem to have been reached: Neither the Taliban nor the United States has demonstrated the ability to conclusively defeat the enemy on the battlefield, and neither has been able to provide Afghans across the country with honest, effective government.
On the ground, American and Afghan combat units have made some advances, but in many districts insurgents remain dangerously active. Official Afghan corruption is pandemic, and efforts to jump-start local economies and governments are lagging.
After a decade of fighting, 50 percent of Afghanistan’s key population centers are “reasonably safe,’’ Gen. David Petraeus, the top coalition commander, said last month. But two of those “reasonably safe’’ cities -- Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz, both in the north -- recently erupted in lethal violence.
Veteran diplomats and some senior military officers concede the war is a “stalemate.’’
If the stalemate continues, and if past trends hold, this year’s combat could result in more than 750 American troops killed and over 12,000 wounded. In the first 60 days of this year, the number of American wounded increased 20 percent over the same period a year ago. The war has already taken the lives of 2,402 U.S. and allied troops. More than 10,000 Americans have come home wounded, many of whom will require lifetime care. Almost 9,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the past four years alone.
In the U.S., what has become known to some as “President Obama’s War” is increasingly unpopular. Even some conservative Republicans, perhaps spurred by the $5 billion per month cost of the war, are turning against it.
There are signs of war weariness on the Taliban side as well. The U.S. tactic of attacking supply and communication lines and cleaning out local insurgent sanctuaries appears to be paying off. In Kandahar this week, about 50 armed Taliban defected to the local government, Reuters reported. In testimony last month, Petraeus said that 700 Taliban have switched sides and another 2,000 are in “various stages’’ of laying down their weapons.
In Afghanistan’s fiercely local and tribal society, however, such defections and re-defections are common. In Mazar-e Sharif, a group of Taliban fighters who had earlier defected joined a mob that stormed the UN compound April 1, killing seven U.N. workers.
Not surprisingly, there are peace feelers extending from both sides -- though they remain unofficial and low-key, often conducted “back channel’’ through third parties.
“Back channels are always useful, and there are quite a few that seem to be operating in Afghanistan,’’ said Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat and long-time United Nations troubleshooter. He oversaw the negotiations that helped transition Afghanistan from chaos in 2001 to the election of the Karzai government.
But, Brahimi cautioned, “back channels have to lead to a ‘front channel,’ as it were. And this is what we don’t have yet, one main official, public, open channel that everybody trusts and accepts as the conduit for looking for a solution to the many problems of Afghanistan.’’
Within the White House and across the U.S. military command, actual peace talks are seen as a distant possibility. Petraeus and others, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, acknowledge that a military victory is impossible and that political negotiations are inevitable.
“We can’t win without fighting,’’ Petraeus has told his troops, “but we also cannot kill or capture our way to victory.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Huffington Post, in Clinton’s cautious words, that progress in the war has “created an opportunity to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process, led by Afghans and supported by intense regional diplomacy and strong U.S. backing.’’
In short, there’s more work to be done on the battlefield to weaken the Taliban before talks can open.
Until the Taliban are “convinced the United States is going to win and they are going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation,’’ CIA Director Leon Panetta once put it. He and other officials use the word “reconciliation’’ to mean negotiations.
“Pressure,’’ Defense Secretary Robert Gates has explained, “will lead to reconciliation.’’
While waiting for more combat victories to build momentum for peace overtures, there is the inevitable awkwardness of actually speaking with the enemy.
“There is still a good deal of debate within the administration on how to initiate contact with the other side,’’ said Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which has just released a major report on the prospects for Afghanistan negotiations.
Domestic U.S. politics also play a major role as the White House weighs the advantages and disadvantages of opening talks with the Taliban. Public demand for a withdrawal is growing, but hasn’t reached a tipping point in Congress -- a House resolution requiring the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was shot down last month, 93-321.
But growing opposition is “visible and real, multiplying pressure to cut whatever face-saving deal you can to get out,’’ said Laurenti, who directed the Afghan negotiations project.
“Discussions are clearly going on,’’ said William B. Taylor, a West Point-educated Army officer and former ambassador who is an expert on conflict termination and peacekeeping at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Whether discussions ever result in an American decision that the time is ripe for actual peace talks, he added, is “still very much an open question.’’
Similar calculations are being made by the Taliban, according to diplomats in touch with senior Taliban officials. Taliban are are watching very carefully to see whether the U.S. fulfills its agreement with Iraq to withdraw all military forces by the end of this year. If it looks like the U.S. has engineered an extension for its troops in Iraq, the Taliban might conclude that trying to negotiate U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a waste of time, and they should keep on fighting.
Growing U.S. domestic opposition to the war also gives the Taliban incentive to keep fighting, Laurenti said. “If it’s clear that even the right has fallen away from sticking it out in Afghanistan, then the Taliban would have reasonable hope of being able to see the Americans leave without a real negotiation -- which is what they want.’’
In short, both sides currently have an incentive to keep fighting, and to escalate the violence.
“Everybody would prefer to negotiate from a position of strength -- but that is precisely why negotiations often don’t start,” James Dobbins, a former diplomat, told The Huffington Post. Dobbins has experience in ending conflicts ranging from the Vietnam peace talks to Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans and Afghanistan, where he worked with Brahimi in 2002 to help form the Karzai government.
Despite these initial difficulties, a war-ending deal seems tantalizingly simple: First, the U.S. wants to keep al Qaeda terrorists out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban seem willing to cut ties with al Qaeda to regain power. Second, the Taliban want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan -- a goal most Americans share.
But even if those cautious feelers engender an agreement to talk, actual negotiations would be extremely complex and would likely drag on for years. The situation reminds Dobbins of the Paris Peace Talks over Vietnam, which dragged on for almost five years. Those talks were suspended for a year while the antagonists and their backers wrangled over where each delegation would sit -- the infamous “shape of the conference table’’ problem.
A similar problem would confront Afghan negotiators seeking to accommodate not just the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghan government, but other stakeholders in an eventual agreement -- Afghan warlords, tribal leaders and ethnic factions within Afghanistan, NATO and European allies, Pakistan, key onlookers like Russia and Iran, and perhaps China.
One way to involve each of these varying parties, Brahimi suggests, would be to have a neutral and respected mediator shuttling among Taliban, Afghan and U.S. delegations, with the other delegations kept outside for occasional consultation.
“For [negotiations] to work,” Secretary of State Clinton has said, “everyone has to feel they have a stake in the outcome and a responsibility for achieving it.’’
Negotiators would confront a daunting agenda. They would have to reach an agreement on how to divide power, and how to control critical government ministries. Also at question would be whether to enshrine Islamic law within the justice system, the rights of women and the possibility of war crime prosecutions.
Given these core problems, “the talks might last for several years, and meantime you would likely see an increase in violence as both sides sought to maximize their advantage,’’ Dobbins said.
And after a settlement would come the issue of enforcement. Some international peacekeeping force would be needed to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing back into the kind of civil war -- fueled by outside intervention -- that has bedeviled the country for decades.
The Century Foundation report was written after a task force of retired diplomats spent a year talking with all parties in the conflict, as well bystanders in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere. The conclusion, written by Brahimi and veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering, is hopeful but cautious.
“Peace is possible in Afghanistan,’’ they wrote, “if Afghans on all sides can overcome their deep divisions, if the international community does not waver or fragment, and if all learn from the mistakes and failures of the past 10 years.’’