The newest about the Obama White House supposedly making a radical policy change to move toward negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan needs scrutiny through two different encryption keys: the machinations among actual parties to the conflict in-country, and the political machinations that pass for policy debate in Washington these days.
On the ground in , it's hard to identify a shift that might make this real. Back in Washington, a fight over negotiating with bad guys has political appeal for some combatants on the left and right. But how would we know if it were really happening? By watching the media in the third-party countries that would play a key role in any such dialogue. By seeing some change on the ground that made it make sense for the insurgents to engage us. But not by watching the political shadowboxing inside the Beltway.
Afghanistan first. Recall that the problem divides into two: the less controversial is "reintegration" of lower-level fighters, which has proved enough, but bumps along, with support from the internationally funded Peace and Reintegration Trust, which represents a policy shift put in motion at least a year ago. Previous reintegration "successes" have tended to encompass individuals and smaller militias with fewer than 100 – or even fewer than a dozen – members. How many have stayed reintegrated, whether compensation is adequate, or whether such programs might even attract more people to become fighters, are hotly debated.
Negotiations with the bigger fish – leaders of the Taliban and other major armed opposition groups – are separately considered under the rubric "reconciliation". President Hamid Karzai has been pressing this approach on Washington for a long time – most recently arriving with a new plan for such negotiations and then achieving a rubber-stamp version of it at the disappointing "Peace Jirga" he convened in June. (, you ask? Handpicked government delegates; NGOs, women and opposition largely excluded. Caroline Wadhams of the Centre for American Progress called it "", which isn't a word one gets to throw around with respect to Afghanistan too often.)
Nextdoor Pakistan sees the ethnic Pashtun insurgent groups as its key to retaining influence in Afghanistan's affairs, a bulwark against the dreaded India, and thus wants to see them reconciled into government. This is a fact of life – geography and history cannot be changed – but it will have to be contended with. If and when the United States and Pakistan find a formula for negotiations that both sides could live with, then things could get interesting – and Karzai, who is thought to much prefer the idea of reconciliation to the reality, might find himself on the hot seat.
The US has insisted for years now that the Taliban must first renounce al-Qaida before talks can begin, though it has periodically seemed willing to run the traps and see if any Taliban leaders can be found who answer to this description. Karzai's draft plan glossed over the problem of the Taliban's allies as a "".
The Taliban and other insurgent groups, for their part, have given a : remove foreign troops from the country and then we'll talk. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if General David Petraeus, in his new role in Afghanistan, had used whatever channels he has available to renew an invitation to talks through third parties: what would be much more surprising would be any kind of positive Taliban response before Petraeus's vaunted counterinsurgency skills had been put to the test in-country. Petraeus's persona may strike fear into the hearts of senators, but it is quite unlikely that he currently has that effect on the Taliban.
And that brings us to our other theatre: Washington. The swift Petraeus-for-McChrystal substitution last month stirred up but then denied hopes of domestic political theatre in two camps: those, largely on the left, who hope that the lack of demonstrable progress on the ground can somehow be translated into speeding up the administration's unspecific commitment to an "inflection point" in troop levels next summer; and those, largely on the right, who frankly hope for excuses to criticise the war effort for political gain.
It should be noted that, despite the unprecedentedly nasty politicisation of national security, these positions are minority points of view on both sides: polls of the citizenry, and back-corridor discussions in Washington, that majorities of elites and regular folks alike have lost faith in the war but desire to see an outcome that seems neither precipitous nor shameful.
The idea of negotiating with high-level figures has something for both ends of the spectrum: it seems to promise a quick, tidy, nonviolent out to those who want one; and it seems to confirm all the right's best invective about Obama's supposed desire to harm America by negotiating with our enemies (in the best traditions of Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Yitzhak Rabin, but never mind).
Regrettably, there's not much reason to believe it will do either. Conservatives would do well to bear in mind that the core tenets of a foreign policy based on diplomacy, negotiation and compromise are still broadly popular, even as Obama's once-lofty national security approval ratings have drifted down to the level of his domestic scores. The public still opposes war with Iran, for example, and even negotiating with the Taliban, the folks who hosted Osama bin Laden and helped bring us 9-11, only . Moreover, Michael Steele is not the only GOP-er who doesn't want to sign up for a decades-long US involvement there.
Among national security analysts and regional experts, the idea that some insurgents will have to come back into the fold for Afghanistan to experience any kind of stability is relatively uncontroversial. The questions of who, how and when – and whether what works in theory in fact works – are hotly debated. Key among the sceptics are , whose concerns about how to make sure reintegration and/or reconciliation do not further imperil and immiserate them deserve consideration from all who claim to have their best interests at heart (which is to say, everyone who has taken up the rhetorical cudgels on Afghanistan, except maybe my realist friends, who like to make much of their relative unconcern for women in order to ensure that no one mistakes them for liberals).
The White House's plan continues to be built around achieving a change in momentum this year sufficient to allow a drawdown of troops, probably modest, as Vice-President Joe Biden said this past weekend, to begin next year and continue. There's nothing in Obama's record – not to mention Robert Gates's, Hillary Clinton's, Petraeus's or Richard Holbrooke's – to suggest a more rapid reversal of strategy and the hasty exit that some either imagine or fear that negotiations with insurgents would allow. What does seem likely is a more subtle set of adjustments to a policy under fire – ones that will both improve its results and – perhaps – rework public expectations of what those results should be. A trial balloon every now and then about negotiating with insurgents tells us the most, perhaps, about that strategy.