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Only way to end the Afghanistan war: US peace deal with the Taliban

Only a political solution can end the unwinnable Afghanistan war and extract the United States from this costly conflict.

By Arif Rafiq / July 8, 2010

Herndon, Va.

Nearly six months into the United States surge in Afghanistan and six months prior to the White House’s review of the Afghan war strategy, it’s clear our mission in Afghanistan is not only failing, but beyond repair.

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Only a political solution can bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and extract the US from this messy conflict. And given Washington’s bleak military predicament, it must begin to give precedence to a political reconciliation process with the senior Taliban leadership now, rather than next year.

The surge’s goal is to blunt the Taliban’s advance within a year’s time and force it to negotiate from a position of weakness. But the Taliban, rather than weakened, is ascendant and will probably remain so.

A recent US Defense Department assessment indicates that most of Afghanistan’s key 121 districts are neutral or sympathetic toward the Taliban, or even staunchly support it. Meanwhile, the Taliban has stymied efforts to establish the Afghan government’s writ in the restive south – the Taliban heartland and the war’s center of gravity.

The so called government in a box, or quickly-installable local government, has come to the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – but that box is a coffin. The Taliban has assassinated local government officials essential to efforts to win over the locals by improving their quality of life. Insurgents have returned to the town of Marja after the offensive there this spring. And operations in the neighboring Kandahar Province, originally scheduled for this month, have been delayed at least until early autumn, due to the Marja operation’s failure.

The status quo – a violent, fractured Afghanistan that is occupied by foreign troops and led by a corrupt, incompetent, and legitimacy-lacking government – benefits the Taliban, who as sons of the soil, can remain in a state of war perhaps indefinitely.

But the United States cannot afford to sink deeper into the Afghan quicksand.

The war in Afghanistan currently costs American taxpayers between $100 million and $200 million annually. A prolonged, ambitious engagement of up to 10 more years – advocated by some conservatives – could cost the US over a trillion dollars.

Fortunately, there is a nascent peace process led by the Afghan and Pakistani governments that Washington can capitalize on. Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani Army are engaged in outreach to the three major Afghan insurgent parties: the Mullah Omar-led Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami, and the network of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani. This initiative is Washington’s ticket for a safe and honorable exit from Afghanistan.