NATO backs Taliban talks: Sign of a shift in Afghanistan war?

NATO said Thursday that it is allowing Taliban leaders to travel to Kabul for talks with the government, suggesting that the West might be considering new options in the Afghanistan war.

Sang Tan/AP
Gen. David Petraeus (l.) leaves 10 Downing Street in London Thursday after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Both the US and Great Britain have announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

NATO’s confirmation that its forces are facilitating talks between Taliban leaders and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a sign that the Afghanistan balance could be shifting from warfare to settlement – and the eventual withdrawal of Western combat forces.

With President Obama’s surge of US forces in Afghanistan complete, this was supposed to be the time for breaking the insurgency’s momentum to create more favorable conditions for peace negotiations.

Though those conditions have clearly not yet arrived, NATO decided to guarantee safe passage to senior Taliban leaders taking part in the talks – though NATO is not taking part in the talks itself.

It is an indication that the surge has not progressed as planned, forcing the US and its allies to open the door wider to other options, says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former Pentagon official.

“What happened is that, even though we may have wanted things to move in a different manner, this is what Karzai wants and what he was determined to do,” says Mr. Korb.

The Western facilitation of the talks joins other recent pointers suggesting the war may be more “wind down” than “ratchet up” – with Western nations focusing on a military-to-civilian shift.

Among the signs:

  • New National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is known to be an Afghan war skeptic who opposed Mr. Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan. His predecessor, Gen. James Jones, also opposed adding troops to Afghanistan, but supporters of US military engagement in Afghanistan fear that Mr. Donilon’s appointment is writing on the wall that Obama intends his withdrawal of US forces beginning next summer to be faster rather than slower.
  • US and NATO officials are seeking guarantees from Mr. Karzai that private security contractors will continue to be allowed to protect foreign aid workers operating in the country. Karzai in August issued a surprise order that all private security firms be disbanded by the end of the year. US and NATO officials want the issue resolved now, but they also have an eye to the future, as civilian assistance programs are supposed to ramp up as the foreign military presence decreases.
  • The Bob Woodward book, “Obama’s Wars,” portrays Obama as determined not to be drawn into an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. "This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Obama said to aides in a private conversation. "Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."
  • NATO ally Italy announced this week that it will begin withdrawing its troops next year. More significantly, the Netherlands has already begun withdrawing its troops and Canada will withdraw all its troops in 2011. British troops will also begin withdrawing next year.
  • With their eyes on US public opinion, which has soured on the war, some candidates for Congress from the president’s party are advocating a faster US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, Chris Coons, the Democratic US senatorial candidate for Delaware, called for a “negotiated resolution” to the war.
  • “All of this,” says Korb, “means that the strategy has shifted more towards the political.”

    Adding to the unease is a new spike in casualties among NATO troops. NATO announced that eight foreign troops were killed in five separate attacks Thursday, adding to the six foreign soldiers killed Wednesday. NATO did not immediately divulge the nationalities of Thursday’s dead.

    Last December, Obama said he would hold a major policy review in a year to judge the strategy’s success. But events on the ground appear to have accelerated the administration’s timeline.

    “Events have simply moved more quickly and overtaken whatever was said a year ago about a major review,” Korb says. “You can’t say, ‘OK, these things are happening, but we’re going to wait until December.’ ”

    Some military affairs experts warn that succumbing to war fatigue could cost the US any chance for success in the war waged since 2001.

    The US is far too focused on quick exits and short-term goals – and as a result risks squandering the sizable investments it has already made in blood and treasure, said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a new report entitled “Grand Strategy in the Afghan, Pakistan, and Iraq wars.”

    “The Administration and the Congress can debate deadlines for beginning US withdrawal like mid-2011, but it will take far more strategic patience than this to achieve any form of success,” Mr. Cordesman writes, suggesting another four to five years at least.

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