THE BLOG

Afghanistan: Is It Really the Endgame?

With the clock ticking down on removing most combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014, there are no official negotiations going on between the United States and the Taliban, nor does there seem to be any strategy for how to bring them about.

When the Obama administration sent an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009, the goal was to secure the country's southern provinces, suppress opium cultivation, and force the Taliban to give up on the war. The surge failed: the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are both are once again under the sway of the insurgency, opium production has soared, and the insurgency has spread into formerly secure areas in the north and west.

Millions of Afghans have been killed or turned into refugees due to the wars of the past 30 years. According to the World Bank, 36 percent of Afghans live at or below the poverty line, and 20 percent of Afghan children never reach the age of five.

The war has cost American taxpayers over $1.4 trillion. The decade-long conflict has put enormous strains on the NATO alliance, destabilized and alienated nuclear-armed Pakistan, and helped to spread al-Qaeda-like organizations throughout the Middle East and Africa.

In theory, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat troops will exit Afghanistan in 2014 and turn the war over to the Afghan Army and police (although in accordance with a treaty between NATO and the government of President Harmid Karzai, several thousand U.S. Special Forces, military trainers, CIA personnel, and aircraft will remain on nine bases until 2024), organizations that have yet to show they can take on the insurgency.

Given the fragility of the Afghan government and its army, one would think that the White House would be putting on a full court press to get talks going, but instead it is following a strategy of "shooting and talking," which has produced lots of casualties but virtually zero dialogue.

Part of the problem is that the call for talks is so heavily laden with caveats and restrictions -- among them that the Taliban must accept the 2004 constitution and renounce violence and "terrorism" -- that it derails any possibility of real negotiations. Taliban leaders argue that the 2004 constitution was imposed from the outside, and they want a role in re-writing it. And they denounced international terrorism five years ago.

As Anatol Lieven -- probably the best informed English-language writer on Afghanistan -- points out, by demonizing their opponents, Americans "make pragmatic compromises with opponents much more difficult."

For instance, the United States will not talk with the Haqqani group, a Taliban ally, even though it is the most effective military force confronting the NATO occupation. The same goes for Iran, even though Tehran played a key role in organizing the 2003 Bonn conference that led to the formation of the current Kabul government and has legitimate interests in the current war.

Additionally, the Haqqanis and the Pakistani army and intelligence services scratch each other's backs. So any understanding to end the war will have to be acceptable to the Haqqanis and Islamabad.

Instead of recognizing the reality of the situation, however, the Obama administration continues to ignore the powerful Haqqanis, sideline Iran, and to alienate the average Pakistani though its drone war.

A solution is possible, but only if the White House changes course. First, the "shoot and talk" nonsense must end immediately. All the shooting will do is get a lot more people killed -- most of them Afghan soldiers, police, and civilians caught in the crossfire -- and sabotage any potential talks.

Last July, Lieven and a group of academics met "leading figures close to the Taliban" during a trip to the Persian Gulf. While the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the Karzai government, its representatives conceded, "there can be no return to the 'pure' government of mullahs" and "that the Taliban might be prepared to agree to the U.S. bases remaining until 2024."

The Taliban's rejection of talks with the Kabul government means that going ahead with next year's presidential election is probably a bad idea. An all-Afghan constitutional convention would be a better idea, with elections postponed until after a new constitution is in place.

All players' agendas will have to be addressed, even if not quite to everyone's satisfaction. This means all the combatants, as well as Iran, India, China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

There is no reason to continue the bloodshed, which all the parties recognize will not alter the final outcome a whit. It is time for the White House to step up and do the right thing and end one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

A longer version of this commentary originally appeared at Foreign Policy In Focus.

Subscribe to the World Post email.