With plans for both its options for orderly disengagement from Afghanistan upended this week by a staff sergeant's massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, the Obama administration urgently needs to alter the equation. The expiration next week of the current U.N. mandate for Afghanistan can provide the occasion.
The president has wisely stood fast against a "rush for the exits" -- no Mogadishu moment here -- and he took full advantage of British prime minister David Cameron's visit to Washington to demonstrate allied commitment to keep to NATO's timetable for a gradual drawdown of Western forces.
A carefully managed phase-out is crucial. If Obama cannot achieve his best option for disengagement, a durable Afghan peace settlement that includes the Taliban, his fallback option -- an Afghan government with an army strong enough to survive a continuing civil war by keeping control of Afghanistan's cities and most of the countryside -- depends on a successful security handover to that army, with a small but capable residual external force to back it up.
In the wake of the massacre, the Taliban have put a damper on the first option by suspending the talks that opened last year with the Americans. For his part, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has put the second option in doubt by effectively calling for U.S. forces to end combat operations next year, a year ahead of schedule.
Karzai today declared himself "at the end of the rope" in the face of his American ally's supposed intransigence, claiming that U.S. officers were not cooperating with the Afghans' investigation of Sunday's killings and indeed had spirited the apparent culprit out of the country. Desperate to disprove the Taliban charge that he is a useless puppet, powerless to rein in the foreign forces supposedly there to support him, Karzai has dug in his heels on a core demand that is anathema to the American military: an end to U.S. forces' night raids.
Till last weekend's killings, U.S. officials had parried Karzai's demand by suggesting that maybe they didn't need a strategic partnership agreement to govern a post-2014 residual force presence after all. But this season's series of alarming incidents of grave troop misconduct have called their bluff. The U.S. military cannot function at shrunken force levels amid an increasingly surly Afghan population without a clear legal agreement.
Moreover, if Washington is really interested in boosting Karzai's authority for the intra-Afghan political struggles to come, it needs to accept his judgment that when the partnership accord comes into force, the remaining foreign troops will no longer be permitted to launch the deeply unpopular night raids. It is Karzai, not the Pentagon, who has the most at risk in curtailing this controversial war tactic. And it is Karzai's government that has the most to gain in showing Afghans that the foreign coalition respects their sovereignty, as expressed by the president they elected.
The insurgents are looking to see whether this latest incident has pushed public tolerance for the war past the tipping point. If the United States were simply to wash its hands of the frustrating Afghan project and walk out, the Taliban believe, the foreign-built façade of an Afghan national government in Kabul would quickly break down and they would, in their dreams, waltz back in.
Washington's inability to agree with Kabul on a continuing partnership could only seem to Taliban strategists as proof of American tentativeness. Conversely, locking in that 10-year partnership agreement is essential to signal to the Taliban that the only way to get the Americans truly out is by a negotiated settlement. Of course, a complete American withdrawal is the primary motivational goal for most Taliban fighters, so it must be clear that we envision a negotiated peace will supersede the partnership agreement.
The Taliban's suspension of talks with U.S. envoy Marc Grossman surely has less to do with Sunday's massacre in Panjwai than with their disgruntlement at the Americans' slowness in delivering to Qatar several senior officials from the deposed Taliban regime who have been imprisoned in Guantánamo for most of the past decade. If they see that the international forces are not in panicked flight and are prepared to keep a lethal residual force in Afghanistan for the long term, if necessary, they will likely move to re-open a channel for talks.
But they have been adamant about not negotiating an internal settlement with a supposedly insubstantial Karzai government (and even some Western supporters wonder, as Anatol Lieven notes, what kind of leadership will replace Karzai when his term ends). Karzai's delivering on Afghan sovereignty in the partnership negotiations should help in bolstering his credibility with the Afghan public, and in pocketing a signed partnership accord his government will have a more convincing hand.
But Washington also needs to accede to another reality it has preferred to ignore: it is unable to manage the peace negotiating process. It cannot get the Taliban to talk to Kabul, and it is itself unable to talk to one of Afghanistan's two largest neighbors, Iran -- and barely able to talk coherently with the other, Pakistan.
Now is the time to turn to the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the OIC, to work in tandem with the United Nations to accelerate a settlement process. The OIC is uniquely positioned to take the lead role in convening all the Afghan parties -- the elected government, the insurgency, the Kabul opposition, and grassroots civil society -- in a process to re-negotiate Afghanistan's post-war political structures.
An OIC mediator, designated jointly with the United Nations and supported by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, will have the moral authority of the entire Muslim world to bring the insurgent jihadists into settlement talks with the rest of Afghan society. Under the U.N. hat, the facilitator can structure the talks among interested neighbors and more distant friends.
It may seem odd, after the heart-rending deaths this week, to summon Islamic cavalry to the rescue, but Afghans' explosive public reaction to the Quran burning incident last month is a powerful reminder that Islam -- for all its sectarian divisions and jihadist appeals -- can also be the tent to bring Afghans together. It's worth giving the OIC a try.
The current authorization for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan runs out on March 23, and the Security Council is expected to tinker with its mandate and renew it before the week is out. It should include an invitation to the OIC to work collaboratively in bringing the Afghan parties to the table to end this long-running war.