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Talks with the Taliban?

Newspaper front pages seem to be full of stories about talks with the Taliban. It is breathlessly reported that NATO has facilitated the travel of senior Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders to Kabul for discussions with President Hamid Karzai and his inner circle. There is nothing wrong with such talks, nor is there anything particularly novel about them. It is the Afghan way to talk to your opponents as well as your friends; after all, their positions could be switched before long. Indeed, some families have sons in both the Taliban and the government.

But don’t expect a breakthrough anytime soon. As CIA Director Leon Panetta sagely said: “If there are elements that wish to reconcile and get reintegrated, that ought to be obviously explored. But I still have not seen anything that indicates that at this point a serious effort is being made to reconcile.”

I don’t see any serious effort at reconciliation either. For that to happen the Taliban will have to suffer more military defeats than they have endured so far. The coalition is just starting to push back in a major way against the insurgency with a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan that includes everything from troops surging into enemy-held areas to increased Special Operations raids and air strikes to attempts to reduce the corrupt uses of foreign-aid money. All of this will take some time to come to fruition, and only when the enemy realizes that there is no way they can shoot their way into power will you see a serious splintering of the Taliban.

A good target of opportunity may arise next summer when President Obama’s deadline for troop withdrawals comes around. The Taliban have been telling anyone who will listen that the Americans are headed out the door. Assuming that any troop withdrawals next summer are small and largely symbolic, the Taliban may well be shocked to discover that they will be hammered just as hard after July 2011 as they were before. That could create a psychological breaking point for at least some of the Taliban, who may decide at that point that their best bet for collecting a pension would mandate leaving the insurgency. But we aren’t at that point yet, so I wouldn’t put too much stock into hyped media reports of talks with the Taliban.