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Petraeus on Karzai-Taliban Talks: Just Don’t Say the ‘T’ Word

In Afghanistan, you’ve got a war of unclear goals that everyone agrees has no military solution. But it’s also not clear if the alternative to open-ended conflict is to cut some kind of deal with Taliban elements — as increasingly-out-of-American-favor President Hamid Karzai has proposed — because it’s unclear whether elements of the Taliban would be interested in such a deal. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar, for instance, says the only deal he’s interested in is one for a unilateral U.S. withdrawal. So where does that leave us?

One alternative is to drill down on definitions of who is and who isn’t the Taliban. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has started to draw distinctions between those who fight the United States for ideological or religious reasons and those who fight for more transactional reasons, like money or fear or inter-tribal concerns. I don’t mean to imply that McKiernan is doing anything at all illegitimate. It’s important to have a taxonomy of what enemies you face, and why they fight you.

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, seems to be going a step further. In October, Petraeus embraced Karzai’s Taliban outreach. But last month, at a big security confab in Washington, he left such outreach out of a presentation of what direction he thinks Afghanistan strategy needs to move in. Yesterday, though, Petraeus addressed the Munich Security Conference, and a version of the original outreach strategy was part of his remarks:

We also, in support of and in coordination with our Afghan partners, need to help promote local reconciliation, although this has to be done very carefully and in accordance with the principles established in the Afghan Constitution. In concert with and in support of our Afghan partners, we need to identify and separate the “irreconcilables” from the “reconcilables, striving to create the conditions that can make the reconcilables part of the solution, even as we kill, capture, or drive out the irreconcilables. In fact, programs already exist in this area and careful application of them will be essential in the effort to fracture and break off elements of the insurgency in order to get various groups to put down their weapons and support the legitimate constitution of Afghanistan.

Having said that, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly and tenaciously. True irreconcilables, again, must be killed, captured, or driven out of the area. And we cannot shrink from that any more than we can shrink from being willing to support Afghan reconciliation with those elements that show a willingness to reject the insurgents and help Afghan and ISAF forces.

There are some Iraq overtones here, though the parallel is inexact. In Iraq, the so-called “bottom-up reconciliation” strategy sought to give Sunni insurgents a stake in the Shiite-run government by hiring them as auxiliary security forces and trying to get the government to, eventually, foot the bill. That’s not, at least, explicit in this iteration of Petraeus’ proposal, but what does remain is the idea that you should fracture the insurgency by, basically, seeing if there are insurgent elements who can be placated or co-opted. And why not? That’s, most often, how insurgencies usually end.

Now, if it turns out no insurgent elements can be co-opted — or, at least, not at reasonable cost — then you’re in unwinnable-conflict territory. But you can’t know until you really make such a push — combined, as Petraeus notes, with tenacious military attacks on the irreconcilable to underscore the starkness of insurgent options — and none of your interests are materially harmed by doing so. Whether you call them “Taliban” or not is less important. And if not using the word helps you achieve the objective, so be it.

Now to find out what Richard Holbrooke and General-turned-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry think.

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