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UN: Time for Direct Talks with Afghan Taliban Leaders

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The top United Nations official for Afghanistan has called for direct talks with senior Taliban leaders. Is anyone in Washington listening?

The New York Times reported Sunday that Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, "called on Afghan officials to seek the removal of at least some senior Taliban leaders from the United Nations' list of terrorists, as a first step toward opening direct negotiations with the insurgent group."

Eide also called on the U.S. to speed its review of the roughly 750 detainees in its military prisons in Afghanistan -- another principal grievance of Taliban leaders.

Eide said he hoped that the two steps would open the way for face-to-face talks between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders.

"If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," Mr. Eide said. "I think the time has come to do it."

It's an unquestioned dogma in official Washington that while of course every informed person knows that the endgame in Afghanistan is a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, the time is not ripe for negotiations; the Afghan Taliban have to be weakened first through military escalation, because their leaders are not ready to talk peace.

It's never explained how U.S. officials know that Afghan Taliban leaders are not ready to talk peace, unless the definition of "talking peace" is "acceding to U.S. demands." A reasonable inference is that these statements by U.S. officials are a dodge: U.S. officials are not ready to talk peace.

The empirical method of determining whether someone is ready to talk peace is that you try to talk peace with them; so far, that has not been meaningfully tried. Now the UN's Kai Eide, by calling for these two concrete steps to try to move towards direct talks, has laid down a marker that we can all measure to evaluate if U.S. officials are ready to talk peace. Is the U.S. pushing for the removal of senior Taliban officials from the U.N. blacklist so they can participate in talks? Is it speeding its review of Afghan detainees? If not, then we can fairly infer that U.S. officials are not ready to talk peace, and need more pressure to become ready.

If U.S. officials are ever pressed by U.S. reporters to explain evidence that Afghan Taliban leaders are willing to talk peace, it's not showing up in the news pages.

On January 21, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the three main leaders of the Afghan insurgency, "has held out the possibility of negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and outlined a roadmap for political reconciliation, opening what could be the most promising avenue for Mr. Karzai's effort to peacefully resolve the conflict."

Hekmatyar called for elections under a neutral caretaker government once U.S.-led forces withdraw and said he would accept an impartial international peacekeeping force.

"Negotiations with the Afghan government will not be fruitful unless the foreigners give the Afghan government the authority to start negotiations independently -- but unfortunately it has not been given this authority yet," Hekmatyar said.

What is the U.S. reaction to this? All the Journal says is that the U.S. government refuses to make a meaningful distinction between Hekmatyar and the two other main insurgent chiefs.

Meanwhile, the evidence is mounting that the current U.S. military escalation is unlikely to make much positive difference to the eventual negotiated solution. The full cables sent by Ambassador Eikenberry represented a "detailed rebuttal to the counterinsurgency strategy" offered by Gen. McChrystal, the New York Times reported Monday, and argued that sending more troops would delay, rather than bring forward, the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops:

"Sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable," he wrote Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, on Monday the Times pointed out that the cooperation from Pakistan that the U.S. was expecting as an essential part of its Afghan strategy will almost surely not materialize before the date that Obama said he would review the strategy.

When Obama announced his decision to send additional troops, he made clear the chances of success hinged significantly on Pakistan's willingness to eliminate militants' havens in its territory, the Times notes. US officials described the surge of troops as a hammer, but said it "required a Pakistani anvil on the other side of the border to prevent the Taliban from retreating to the mountains." Now, the Times says, that strategy "appears imperiled" by Pakistan's statement that it would not launch any new offensive "for as long as a year," noting that some US officials "think it could be longer."

The Times notes that in his Dec. 1 speech at West Point, Obama said he would reassess his plan at the end of 2010. But if Pakistan does not launch a new offensive this year, operations on Pakistan's side of the border will not have begun by the time Obama has made this promised assessment.

Since there is little reason to believe that military escalation is going to change anything fundamental in a positive way for the outcome of negotiations, there is no reason to wait to start negotiations.

In the next few months, Congress will have a window of opportunity to try to redirect U.S. policy, when the Administration must come to Congress for more money to pay for its military escalation.

In preparation for Congress' consideration of the war supplemental, we need a vigorous public propaganda in favor of negotiations and a timeline for U.S. military withdrawal. Nothing meaningful is likely to come out of Congress if the Congressional deliberation is not preceded by a vigorous public discussion of negotiations and a withdrawal timeline.

If you would like to contribute to the discussion on behalf of negotiations and a timeline for withdrawal, a strategic place to add your voice is here.