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U.S. to Negotiate With the Taliban?

We might be on the verge of a major breakthrough with the Taliban. As I’ve been noting, the Karzai government in Afghanistan has been putting out feelers to the Taliban for negotiating an end to its insurgency in exchange for some sort of power-sharing deal. According to David Ignatius of The Washington Post, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has even shown openness to the idea of repudiating Al Qaeda, which, in my opinion, would be a severe blow to the terrorist entity.

So far, though, the U.S. has been on the sidelines, as the Saudis are brokering the Karzai-Taliban talks. At his press conference earlier this month, Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, grudgingly said he’d support the Afghan government if it chose to go down the path of negotiations. But The Wall Street Journal now reports that the U.S. might get involved in those negotiations directly:

Senior White House and military officials believe that engaging some levels of the Taliban — while excluding top leaders — could help reverse a pronounced downward spiral in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Both countries have been destabilized by a recent wave of violence.

The outreach is a draft recommendation in a classified White House assessment of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, according to senior Bush administration officials. The officials said that the recommendation calls for the talks to be led by the Afghan central government, but with the active participation of the U.S.

If anyone not in the Bush administration proposed this even a few months ago, Bush officials and their conservative allies would holler “appeasement!” Ah, but you can’t really call this man an appeaser:

The idea is supported by Gen. David Petraeus, who will assume responsibility this week for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen. Petraeus used a similar approach in Iraq, where a U.S. push to enlist Sunni tribes in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq helped sharply reduce the country’s violence. Gen. Petraeus earlier this month publicly endorsed talks with less extreme Taliban elements.

What Petraeus understands and the White House doesn’t — or, at least, up till now didn’t — is that insurgencies rarely end with complete victory by one or the other side. They end by co-optation, integration and — yes — appeasement. Give your enemy a positive reason to stop fighting you that meets his core needs and you can probably get him to, you know, stop.

Making an offer like that will, most often, allow the population to view you as reasonable, putting the insurgent in a bind if he refuses. And the hardcore insurgents who refuse reasonable offers of peace can be dealt with militarily. That’s why Petraeus went to Heritage earlier this month, as I reported, and said, “You have to talk to enemies”:

Petraeus pointed to efforts by Hamid Karzai’s government to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that would potentially bring some Taliban members back to power, saying that if they are “willing to reconcile,” it would be “a positive step.”

As The Journal points out, joining the talks would only be a first step. A senior U.S. official tells the paper, “How much should [we] be willing to offer guys like this?”

A just and wise question, and the subject of a thoroughgoing strategy review. What should we offer the Taliban in exchange for a verifiable end to its insurgency? The fact that even the Bush administration is willing to ask the question stands as an implicit recognition of the failure of eight years of its foreign policy.

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