Can the US be pals with the terrorist Taliban?

McCain and Obama need to say if they back Karzai's talks with the Afghan Taliban.

The McCain campaign may want to be careful with its charge that Barack Obama was once "pals" with a 1960s American terrorist. Whoever is the next president faces a difficult choice in the Afghanistan war: Should the US support possible talks with the Taliban, pals of Al Qaeda?

General David Petraeus does. And as President Bush often says, he takes the advice of top generals.

As architect of the troop surge that helped turn the Iraq war into an exitable and low-level conflict, Gen. Petraeus will soon become head of the US Central Command and thus responsible for American military operations in Afghanistan.

Several NATO commanders there say this seven-year old war, launched after 9/11 to oust both the Taliban regime and Al Qaeda, has become unwinnable and that only political reconciliation with Taliban insurgents can bring it to a close. A report by US intelligence agencies finds the recent escalation of the war has put Afghanistan in a "downward spiral."

Last month, Taliban figures and the Afghan government reportedly met in Saudi Arabia. (Both sides, appropriately, deny it.) Such an unusual breakthrough, however, led Petraeus to give advice this week on how to handle such talks: "You've got to set things up. You've got to know who you're talking to. You've got to have your objectives straight – all the rest of this stuff."

That sounds more like Senator Obama's approach than either Mr. Bush's or Senator John McCain's. Sen. Obama would keep a conditional open door to talks with terrorist groups and terrorist-backing nations such as Iran.

Now, either he or Sen. McCain may enter the White House with the US possibly being asked by its Afghan allies in Kabul to support not only talks with some or all of the Taliban factions, but perhaps a deal to bring them into a coalition government. (The two candidates are quibbling over troops levels rather than the issue of talking with terrorists.)

The threshold set for Taliban leaders to be folded into a new regime should be high. They must renounce violence and Al Qaeda, and swear allegiance to a democratic Constitution. They should also accept a temporary presence of US troops.

Why would the Taliban take such steps?

The group, which isn't as unified as during its 1996-2001 rule, may not subscribe to Osama bin Laden's vision of a worldwide Muslim caliphate. Afghan culture demands brotherly reconciliation. The Taliban is also facing potential ouster from Pakistan as a new government there appears to be stepping up military operations against militants along the border.

Some Taliban leaders may be enticed to split off and cut a deal with the elected Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, especially with elections slated for next year. The Taliban knows it is not popular with the masses and may want to use elections, rather than guns, to win back support for their views of running an Islamic society.

But those are a lot of if's. First, the US must decide whether to give a strong wink to Mr. Karzai on talks and the right conditions for them.

As they have with the financial crisis, McCain and Obama should stake out a position on this issue.

The top general has. He knows peace doesn't always come out of the barrel of a gun.

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