In the end, though, the Obama administration may find itself forced to support Karzai's peace initiative. In fact, say longtime observers of Afghanistan, the White House may quietly be supporting the diplomacy behind the scenes, even as it blasts Karzai in public. "They've played their cards close to the chest," says James Dobbins, a former State Department official who led U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghan politics in 2001. "Certainly they're not opposed to talking to the Taliban on principle. It's not 'We don't talk to terrorists, and we never will.' That's not their position." Instead, he suggests, it's likely that the White House knows it will ultimately have to talk to the Taliban and is using the July 2011 deadline to pressure the insurgents to reach an accord. "The administration needs to decide whether a departure for the United States and NATO is something it will be prepared to agree to, as part of the endgame," Dobbins says. "You can imagine a situation in which a U.S. agreement to leave can have a salutary effect in Afghanistan."
For now, however, the Obama administration remains anxious about what, exactly, Karzai has in mind. "They're very nervous about what Karzai is going to agree to," says a former senior U.S. official with close ties to Afghanistan. "I suspect they're looking around for some sort of strategic agreement about what negotiations should look like." For many in the U.S. government, "strategic agreement" means forcing Karzai to slow down his efforts to court the Taliban and fall in line with the American strategy.
In fact, it's likely that concerted U.S. pressure can keep Karzai in line — after all, he's utterly dependent on U.S. financial assistance, and American troops are keeping him in power. According to insiders, he'll certainly get his arm twisted during his visit to Washington on May 10th. Still, with the deadline for withdrawal getting closer, Obama will soon find himself forced to choose, once again, between hawks and doves inside the administration. If, as is widely expected, the coming assault on Kandahar fails to make a dent in the Taliban's momentum, the president may have to start pulling up stakes in Afghanistan. "McChrystal's got until 2011 to show that his plan can work," says Freeman, the former ambassador.
The showdown with Karzai, insiders say, ultimately comes down to a matter of pride. "We are going through the motions to impart just enough stability to Afghanistan so that we can say we're going out with our heads held high," says Paul Pillar, the former chief Middle East analyst for the U.S. intelligence community. "It would be harder to go out under those terms if we smiled on Karzai starting to make deals with senior Taliban officials." To do so, he suggests, would make it appear as if Obama had cut a deal with the very people we invaded Afghanistan in order to crush. Which, in the end, is exactly what the president will have to do.
This article originally appeared in RS 1104 from May 13, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
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