"The reconciliation that Karzai is putting on the table is not the same as the reintegration that the United States is putting on the table," says Fair. "The U.S. believes that the Taliban is fighting because they're getting paid: If you knock them around a little bit, alter to some extent their cost-benefit calculus, they might be interested in reintegrating."
The problem with reintegration is that it requires the kind of military victory that no superpower — not the British, not the Soviets, not the Americans — has ever pulled off in Afghanistan. The U.S. has neither enough troops nor the political will to sustain a decades-long nation-building effort that can clear the Taliban — village by village, and valley by valley — from the estimated two-thirds of the country it currently controls. Because the Taliban is supported by Pakistan — which created and financed the insurgency in the 1990s as a tool to guarantee that Afghanistan would remain in Pakistan's sphere of influence — it enjoys an isolated and nearly impregnable base of operations. And the Taliban has deep roots in the ethnic Pashtun population within Afghanistan, making it nearly impossible to identify and weed out. "The Taliban are an outgrowth of the people," says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "The essence of the U.S. strategy is to separate the Taliban from the people — and that, in practice, means separating fathers from sons and sons from mothers."
The big test of the Obama administration's strategy will come this summer, when thousands of U.S. troops launch their ballyhooed offensive to take control of Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Together with the sprawling rural districts that surround it, Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, and it remains largely under Taliban control. In February and March, a much smaller U.S. military offensive was unleashed against Marja, a farming community in neighboring Helmand province, in the heart of Afghanistan's poppy-growing region. Taken together, the Marja operation and the coming attack on Kandahar are meant to show the Taliban that the United States can oust it from its most prized districts.
But Karzai, intent on striking a deal with the Taliban, opposed the Marja action. And in April, he traveled to Kandahar to assure tribal elders, many of whom support the Taliban, that he would not permit the United States to move into the city without the support of the local tribes. "I know you are worried about this operation," he told the elders. "There will be no operation until you are happy."
The head of the provincial council in Kandahar happens to be none other than Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and a notoriously corrupt wheeler-dealer who is a reputed drug trafficker. But Ahmed Wali also serves as a liaison with some of the Taliban's leaders in the Kandahar region — ties that could prove vital if the government wants to negotiate a cease-fire with the insurgents. Such subtleties, however, are lost on the Americans. In a stunning display of both ignorance and arrogance, a U.S. military officer recently threatened to kill Ahmed Wali Karzai. "I'm going to be watching every step you take," the officer told the president's relative. "If I catch you meeting with an insurgent, I'm going to put you on the list. That means that I can capture or kill you."
That attitude, experts on Afghanistan warn, is exactly what is driving Karzai to seek peace with the enemy. So far, the Obama administration has succeeded only at driving America's leading ally in Kabul into the arms of the very insurgents we are there to defeat. "The more Karzai feels threatened and endangered, the more we push him back on the people we'd like him to get rid of," says Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who knows Karzai well. "That's where he can find support."
This past summer, when President Obama was conducting what turned out to be a months-long review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, he found himself under enormous pressure from the Pentagon and his top generals — including Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command — to escalate the war. (See "The Generals' Revolt," RS 1090.) In the end, he gave the hawks what they wanted — tens of thousands of additional troops — but promised Vice President Joe Biden and other doves in the administration that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011.
But few observers expect the U.S. to meet that deadline. "Anyone who thinks we're seriously going to start pulling out serious numbers of troops by July is living in a fantasy world," says Riedel, the former CIA analyst. "We may even find ourselves in a position where General McChrystal says, 'I need more troops.'" Riedel acknowledges that Obama will come under fire at home if he decides to extend the war, but he argues that it's a price the president can afford to pay: "If you look at this in terms of the politics, the frustration is going to come from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
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