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Behind Cautious Signal, a Decision for Afghan Peace Talks

by Gareth Porter

KABUL - Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's very cautiously-worded support for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban leadership in an interview published Monday is only the first public signal of a policy decision by the Barack Obama administration to support a political settlement between the Hamid Karzai regime and the Taliban, an official of McChrystal's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command has revealed in an interview with IPS.

Speaking to the Financial Times, McChrystal couched his position on negotiations in terms of an abstract support for negotiated settlements of wars, saying, "I believe that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome." The ISAF commander avoided a direct answer to the question of whether the Taliban could play a role in a future Afghan government.

When pressed by the interviewer on the issue, McChrystal would only say that "any Afghan can play a role if they focus on the future and not the past."

The ISAF official, who spoke with IPS on condition that he would not be named, was much more candid about the centrality of peace negotiations with the Taliban leadership in the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan and about the understanding of the ISAF command that the Taliban leadership is independent of al Qaeda and is already positioning itself for a political settlement.

The official said the objective of the troop surge and the ISAF strategy accompanying it is to support a negotiated political settlement. "The story of the next 18 months is the story of establishing the conditions under which reconciliation will take place," said the official.

"Reconciliation" is the term used within the U.S. military for an understanding between the Karzai regime and the leadership of the insurgency, whereas "reintegration" refers to a strategy for bringing mid-level Taliban commanders and their troops back into society.

The counterinsurgency strategy now being mounted in Afghanistan by ISAF "is aimed at providing time and space" for "reconciliation", according to the official, as well as governance reforms and increasing the capacity of the national army and police force during that 18-month period.

The ISAF official said there has been a debate among U.S. officials about "the terms on which the Taliban will become part of the political fabric". The debate is not on whether the Taliban movement will be participating in the Afghan political system, however, but on whether or not the administration could accept the participation of a specific individual -- Mullah Omar, the leader of the organisation and former chief of state of the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001 -- in the political future of Afghanistan.

Some U.S. officials have argued that the Taliban leader should be barred from participation, because of his role in protecting Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 terror attacks and refusing to hand over the al Qaeda leader in the weeks that followed the attacks.

The official suggested that the Obama administration and its NATO allies need to reach a consensus about the issue, and that recent events make the present moment "seem like a good time to deal with that."

Despite their interest in that issue, the ISAF official said, the United States won't determine the outcome of the negotiations. "Reconciliation is considered to be in the purview of the Afghan government and international mediators," the official said.

Nevertheless, the official left no doubt that the United States will participate in the negotiations. "I don't think anybody is under the misconception we are not going to negotiate," he said.

U.S. participation appears necessary to get the Taliban to agree to end its resistance and reach a political solution. The Taliban has insisted in published statements that it will not participate in peace talks that would not result in the withdrawal of foreign troops.

That demand raises the question of whether the administration would be willing to discuss the complete withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of a settlement.

The last time a demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal was negotiated in an international agreement was the Iraqi security pact of 2008. The George W. Bush administration had insisted that the United States would only agree to a "condition-based" withdrawal plan, but in the end, it accepted a deadline for complete withdrawal.

The ISAF official said the decision on that issue would be made by the Obama administration and its NATO allies, but that the ISAF command would have "no problem" with the negotiation of a timetable in conjunction with a political settlement.

The official suggested that the argument used to justify the troop surge in Afghanistan - that the Taliban would allow al Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan if it were allowed to consolidate power in large areas - has now been abandoned.

"There are certainly divisions between Taliban and al Qaeda," said the official. He cited statements by Taliban officials that "the state was hijacked by al Qaeda, and we're not going to let that happen again."

The argument that the Taliban leadership would be unwilling to negotiate unless persuaded by increasing U.S. military pressures over the next 18 months that they are "losing" also appears to have been abandoned by the administration and the ISAF command.

The official cited a "growing trend" in intelligence analysis concluding that the Taliban "is positioning itself for a settlement."

Seeking a negotiated solution "is the smart thing for them to do," the ISAF official said. "They are probably at the zenith of their power," he explained, and may be anticipating serious challenges to their hold on some of the present Taliban territorial base in the south.

In addition, the Taliban see a "fairly strong international commitment" to a political settlement of the war, he said.

Although he acknowledged that the Taliban leadership wants a political settlement of the war, the ISAF official offered a new rationale for continuation of the war, suggesting that it is "necessary to continue to put pressure on the insurgent leaders to keep negotiations going."

[The admission that negotiations with the Taliban leadership for a settlement would be at the expense of al Qaeda influence in the country follows Taliban statements in recent months suggesting a new willingness to meet the central U.S. demand that the Taliban separate itself from al Qaeda. In September, Mullah Omar declared the Taliban has no interest in a global jihadist campaign and in December a Taliban statement said the organisation is ready to provide "legal guarantees" against "meddling" in foreign countries - an obvious reference to any al Qaeda bases - as part of a settlement involving withdrawal of foreign forces.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.

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