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Michael Brenner Headshot

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

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Talks with the Taliban that do not presume their dissolution as a political entity are an absolute prerequisite for finding a way out of the Afghan dead end. Yet the Obama administration dances around this truth in the vain hope that some sort of 'victory' still can be achieved that comes closer to the long stated goal of eliminating all terrorist danger from that ill-starred country. Talk about 'talks' but without talks is the current reality.

Speculation about the prospects of genuine peace talks with the Taliban is only productive when placed in the context of current policies, objectives and expectations. On this, the Obama administration looks as opaque as the Taliban. They have yet to make clear what a successful outcome is. All that we have heard is that "we'll know it when we see it." Will we also know failure when we see it? On the notorious July 1, 2011 withdrawal date, it's "Don't ask; don't tell."

Nonetheless, we can infer from actions taken what the President, Secretary Gates, General Petraeus and supporting cast have in mind. Above all, an acceptable outcome is one whereby the risk of attacks on American territory or assets emanating from AfPak is close to zero. That has been the goal of the "war on terror" from the outset and it never has been called into question or qualified. The hyping of every incident at home confirms that. As a consequence, the nation's political leaders are preoccupied with only two things: being seen as doing more to root our terrorism than their predecessor or possible electoral rival; and avoiding incidents -- however amateurish -- that suggest otherwise. That makes it difficult to say or do anything that would leave Afghanistan in an unsettled state.

A settled state satisfactory to Washington, logically speaking, would have these features. One, a stable government controlled by forces friendly to the United States. Two, the subordination of the Taliban and its supporters to that government and its policies. This formulation allows for some Taliban to participate in some way in national politics and governance. Three, the Taliban would be denied dominance in any province lest aid or comfort in any form is extended to the al-Qaeda remnants. Four, all ties between the Taliban -- at all levels -- and al-Qaeda are severed. Five, these arrangements are not in danger of being disrupted by persons or forces operating from across the Durand Line, i.e. the Taliban and its allies must be neutralized in Pakistan as well.

In order to put this end-point in sight, military operations must significantly degrade Taliban capability and demoralize the leadership to the point where they are prepared to meet our terms. Top leadership must feel pressure from below and in turn impose their change of heart/mind on any recalcitrant local elements. That means a relentless campaign of the order currently now underway for an indefinite period. It also means prevailing in efforts to cajole/coerce the Pakistani military to abandon its links to all Taliban and Taliban related elements while stepping up pressure all along the frontier.

Framing the question in this way raises these answers. First, serious talks are a long way off since it will take years -- if ever for the critical enabling conditions to be met. Second, our time-frame and our conception of a successful outcome are sharply at variance with what Karzai has in mind. The same holds in spades for the Pakistanis. Third, any agreements or understandings short of that are ruled out by domestic political pressures in the U.S., and the pride and ambitions of General Petraeus. Finally, we remain ignorant of who is who at the top levels of the Taliban -- making it extremely hard to conceive and pursue a nuanced strategy.

The fiasco involving the supposed Taliban no. 2 who turned out to be a Quetta grocer highlights just how inadequate is our understanding of key elements in the Afghan equation. That humiliation also highlights the extent to which wish fulfillment drives the behavior of Petraeus' 'Team Kabul.' That is the stuff of a legend and mythic persona without roots in reality, past or present.

The only way out of the maze is for the president to take charge, impose his will on his generals, and confront his political enemies and the country with the harsh realities. But does he have a will applicable to anything beyond his nominal political survival?