WASHINGTON - The struggle within the Barack Obama administration over Afghanistan policy entered a new phase when the president suggested at a meeting of his "war cabinet" Friday that it might be time to start negotiations with the Taliban, according to a report in the New York Times Saturday.
Obama said that the success of the recent operation to take control of the "insurgent stronghold" of Marja, combined with the killing of insurgent leaders in Pakistan by drone attacks, might be sufficient to "justify an effort to begin talks with the Taliban", two participants in the meeting told the Times.
That proposal puts Obama directly at odds with key members of his national security team, especially Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both Gates and Clinton have argued in recent months that attempting to negotiate with Taliban leaders would be fruitless unless and until they have been convinced by U.S. military operations that they are losing.
In an indication that Gates and Clinton intend to resist Obama's proposal to start talks soon, the Times reported that two unnamed officials who attended the meeting said any plans for "reaching out" to the leadership of the Taliban are likely to be delayed until after U.S. forces launch a major military offensive in Kandahar province.
That, of course, is the Gates-Clinton position on the issue, which is also held by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
By suggesting that Obama's suggestion is not likely to prevail, the opponents of early negotiations were expressing confidence that they will once again force him to back away from a position that is unacceptable to the military leadership and the field commander. They succeeded in getting Obama to retreat from his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq in March 2009 and from his initial resistance to a large troop increase in Afghanistan last November.
The argument that will now be made by Clinton, Gates and McChrystal that the administration should wait until after the Kandahar operation is launched before taking any negotiating initiative is evidently aimed at giving McChrystal's command as much time as possible to show successful results against the Taliban before negotiations begin.
The offensive in Kandahar is not expected to begin until this summer, according to military officials, and it could take several months before U.S. troops even get into the city itself. The military and its allies in Obama's war cabinet would certainly argue for delaying talks until the operation could demonstrate clear success. That could mean waiting until well into 2011.
Obama identified mid-2011 as the trigger point for the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Obama will also need to show the U.S. public that he is making progress on an exit strategy by 2012 - the biggest single prod for starting peace negotiations much earlier.
The question of when negotiations with the Taliban might begin has been hanging over the administration's national security team for weeks. As one official told the Times, starting negotiations "is now more a question of 'when' than a question of 'if'."
Gen. McChrystal has been worried that Obama would agree to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban involving a relatively short timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Contrary to the public position voiced frequently by Gates that the Taliban would not negotiate seriously under present conditions, McChrystal understands that there are indications the Taliban leaders would try to use their present strong territorial position as bargaining leverage on a settlement. That was the gist of what an official of McChrystal's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told IPS in late January.
The Taliban would presumably offer formal guarantees that it would sever all ties with al Qaeda in return for withdrawal of all foreign troops, based on the signal conveyed in an article on the website of the Taliban's Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan website Dec. 5.
The Washington Post's military correspondents reported Feb. 22 that "senior military officials" had decided to target Marja mainly to convince U.S. public opinion that the U.S. military can be successful in Afghanistan. That shift in perception about military success, in turn, would be expected to translate into a slower troop withdrawal, according to the Post report.
That reasoning implied that a shift in public opinion toward support for military operations in Afghanistan would discourage Obama from agreeing to a short timetable for withdrawal in any negotiations with the Taliban.
When Obama announced a compromise strategy in November, he hinted that the war would have to end through negotiations, but left the question of how and when the United States would participate in those negotiations unresolved. In referring to the military objective in Afghanistan, Obama refused to talk about defeating the Taliban in his Dec. 2 speech. Instead, he referred to "a strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months."
That was in sharp contrast to his Mar. 27 speech, in which he referred to the "uncompromising core of the Taliban" and said "they must be defeated". Obama was clearly implying that negotiations would be a necessary part of the strategy.
But Obama provided no explicit policy guidance on when and how negotiations would begin. That allowed Clinton and Gates to continue to offer arguments against such negotiations publicly.
On ABC News Dec. 5, Clinton suggested that there was no reason to believe that the Taliban would agree to the main U.S. demand for an end to all ties with al Qaeda, citing Mullah Omar's refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. And Gates repeated the argument that the Taliban would only be ready to negotiate after their "momentum" had been stopped.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had already begun asking the United States to support him in starting negotiations with the Taliban - something Clinton had publicly opposed. Karzai said on Dec. 3 that he would invite Mullah Omar himself to talks.
He let it be known that he would use the London Conference Jan. 27-28 to invite the Taliban to participate in a national "Grand Council" meeting on peace.
That intention heated up the debate in Washington and in McChrystal's ISAF headquarters. In Kabul just four days before the conference, an ISAF official told IPS the issue then under debate within the administration was whether Mullah Omar would be an acceptable participant in a future Afghan government.
"If Mullah Omar were to turn around tomorrow and say he is ready to come back," he asked, "would we be comfortable with that?" The official suggested that the London Conference was an opportunity to achieve consensus on the issue.
Seeking clarification of the U.S.-NATO stance on the issue of Mullah Omar's acceptability now appears to have been aimed at getting a decision against early negotiations with the Taliban leadership. Barring Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual as well as political leader, from participation in any negotiations would have meant, in practical terms, refusing to deal with the Taliban's Leadership Committee.
Back in Washington, however, Obama made no decision to support or oppose Karzai's proposal and, by extension, left open the possible participation by Mullah Omar in talks on a peace agreement.
An administration official recalled recently that the George W. Bush administration adopted a firm policy against reconciliation with the Taliban, and that then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once told Karzai in a phone conversation to "shut up about reconciliation" with the Taliban. But the Obama administration still hadn't adopted a new policy on the issue, the official told IPS.
Obama's initiative in proposing to take advantage of even modest successes in Afghanistan and Pakistan to start talks suggests that he was waiting for the earliest possible favourable moment politically to make a move toward diplomacy. It remains to be seen, however, whether he is willing to stand up to pressures from opponents of such an initiative or will retreat once again to avoid any confrontation with the military.
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.