A new political theme is slipping the surly bonds of caution this week, as negotiators prepare to converge on London for the upcoming conference on Afghanistan. Suddenly the word “reintegration” is on every tongue, and conferees affirm portentously that the solution in Afghanistan “must be political.” Lest the meaning of that be missed, Sweden’s venerable Carl Bildt offers this clarification: “There is no military solution.”
This is a straw man, of course; no one says there is a “military solution” for unifying and pacifying Afghanistan. But Defense Secretary Bob Gates and General Stanley McChrystal have been clear in the last week that military operations must be one of the tools used to achieve the long-term solution. The candidates for reintegration into Afghanistan’s polity are the Taliban, and among them are factions that have shown no sign at any time of being amenable to consensual negotiation or compromise. They attack civilians and military forces alike in their campaign to destabilize the central government in Kabul.
The Taliban’s record in the past month forms a striking contrast with the pace of reintegration being proposed in political circles. After killing nearly 100 people at a volleyball match in Pakistan and assassinating CIA agents at a base in Afghanistan, the Taliban killed 20 in a market bombing in central Afghanistan and killed seven and wounded 71 in coordinated attacks in downtown Kabul. These tallies don’t reflect smaller incidents in the AfPak theater during the same period, but they are in line with the UN’s report that 2009 was the Taliban’s bloodiest year since the regime change in 2001. Hamid Karzai’s reintegration policy for the Taliban has naturally been endorsed by President Obama and our NATO allies, but there is no evidence as yet — not even a photo op — of any material reciprocation from the insurgents.
European leaders nevertheless show signs of favoring reintegration measures like the ones outlined by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. In light of the Taliban’s unrelieved recalcitrance, adopting this list unilaterally would clearly be getting ahead of ourselves. It’s too early to talk about removing Taliban members from terror lists, or limiting Karzai’s latitude with a UN mandate for him to sit down with the insurgents. Gates and McChrystal have spoken consistently of using a multi-pronged approach, including military operations, to create the conditions for productive diplomacy — and those conditions don’t exist yet. Comments from both men have made it clear that their position has not changed, even though the media is portraying their endorsement of eventual negotiations somewhat misleadingly, as if they might be ready to dispense with the inconvenient labor of shaping conditions beforehand.
We haven’t heard much from Obama on this. We can hope that he concurs with his defense leadership, although there have been troubling indications of divergence in the definitions being used by the White House and the Pentagon. The Taliban are not even pretending to be potential negotiators; they’re giving the international coalition no excuse for deceiving itself about their intentions or openness to compromise. Obama should exercise the coalition leadership necessary to keep the effort in Afghanistan on track, and not let it lose its way in imprudent shortcuts.