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Obama's Winning Move: Negotiate with the Taliban

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Last week, Kabul was more-than-usually atwitter with rumors. President Obama's campaign heavyweights were just about to come to town. The whispers gathered pace: Obama's campaign is desperate for a new Afghan policy. The polling is pretty easy to read: it sucks; get out of Afghanistan -- now.

How does Obama suddenly do an armstand back-double-somersault with one and a half twists and save face? To be able to push forward the 2014 withdrawal deadline, wouldn't it have to be based on newly acquired information, new strategies and results, better processes and outcomes of the ongoing war? Could Joe Biden's long-term skepticism of the newfangled, fancy-pants counterinsurgency techniques favored by retired General Petraeus now get traction? Could COIN get trashed on the road to an Obama reelection?

It's negotiation, not political campaigns, that ends wars. In the face of genocide, assassination, terrorism, desertions and chaos, it's the quality of negotiations -- often fraught or grudging -- that will broker some sort of peace, no matter how unsteady or uncertain that peace may be.

Everyone involved in the seeming endlessness of Afghanistan knows that. Its how and who the NATO alliance negotiates with, and where and when and what constitutes a reasonable settlement, has never been publicly well-defined.

Afghanistan's President Karzai uses almost any and all occasion to call upon his Taliban "brothers" to forgo violence and hurry up to the various negotiation tables where the big boys sit. He did it again on Eid-ul-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) this past Tuesday.

(Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued his own unique Eid message, praising rising foreign troop casualties and the murder of several high-level Afghan officials and claiming that the Taliban is expanding its territory and close to victory. Such bloodshed, murder and carnage represents "good news of an imminent victory and a bright future!" he happily announced.)

Of course, negotiations that lead to early withdrawal for the sake of a reelection campaign are of no interest to Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar. The December Bonn Conference (which is not a negotiation but is, sadly, billed as a "challenges and progress report" on the disastrous 2001 Bonn Agreement) has already attracted tit-for-tat statements. Mullah Omar says the Taliban aren't going, Ambassador Ryan Crocker says the Taliban aren't invited. Afghan President Karzai says he will represent Afghanistan. Sound depressingly familiar?

Karzai, too, is in a difficult of position. Regarded by many diplomats as a failure at best, and at worst an unstable and untrustworthy ally who is suffered rather than welcomed at negotiations, he has been included in and at times excluded from the process.

Since the late winter of 2010, there has been a consistent round of negotiations, some of them attended by Karzai deputies. The sessions have been classified as "direct talks" (the word "negotiation" somehow indicates a compromise, a win-win, a leavening out).

The Taliban (and their particularly vicious partners, the Haqqani Network) have no interest in being seen to be in "negotiations" -- it hardly fits their image. But a settlement that ends with Taliban inclusion into Afghan political life may yet appeal if formulated through strength, deftness and discretion. The late Richard Holbrooke was the master of this style of tough, persistent negotiation. His successor, Marc Grossman, has stepped into the mess. It's doubtful that he will be impressed with Karzai's constant leaking of details of these most delicate stages of dialogue to burnish his image and to avoid what he most fears: being seen as irrelevant.

Negotiated settlement could well be the most important part of the 2012 reelection campaign. Getting negotiations underway and reporting genuine results could deliver an election-decider to Obama, because it could mean an earlier withdrawal.

Negotiated settlement is inevitable. It's getting to the table and imagining the end that is the hard part. With the 2012 election being a third wheel is this delicate, knife-edge process, the most fervent hope is that President Obama honors his priorities and gets them right.