Talk to the Taliban, Then Leave with Obama

Apart from Dutch Interior Minister Ter Horst, it seems that now the whole world is in favor of negotiating with the Taliban, and rightly so. Increasingly, there are signals that factions in Afghanistan itself are willing to talk.

Now, concrete steps are being taken to earn the trust of the Taliban, such as the reintegration of their fighters, as discussed in London in recent days. Persuading fighters to give up their arms in exchange for a job, security and training has already been successful in Iraq and suits the vision that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has in mind: The Taliban is to become an integral part of Afghan politics, but must first adopt a more positive attitude to enable reconciliation with the government in Kabul. In other words, no more sabotaging elections and stop the killing. In addition, the departing U.N. chief in Afghanistan, Kai Erde, wants to remove a number of fighters in Afghan jails from the terrorist list.

At the same time, it appears that tentative steps are being taken by the Taliban itself. Their leader, Mullah Omar, is alleged to have ordered a change in strategy in reaction to the collapse of support among the Afghan population and NATO’s apparent success. The London Times claims to have laid its hands on a plan that reads like a code of conduct: No suicide attacks against civilians, no filmed executions and no barbaric measures, such as cutting off ears or noses. Instead, get closer to the people.

What is going on here? It is true that, in the south of the country, of all places, tribal leaders are fed up with the violence and are turning their supporters against the Taliban? Another explanation is that, with greater numbers of NATO troops in the south, the Taliban must use ever increasing violence in order to achieve its objectives. This increase in violence has the opposite effect, as Taliban leaders realize that a military victory is unattainable, that the “hearts and minds” of the people must be won and that, in the end, the only possible solution is a political one. In this respect, the course of the war in Afghanistan follows the “normal” pattern of conflicts of this kind.

This change in the dynamic of the conflict is good news. One cautious conclusion might be that these are tentative signs indicating that the war is entering a new phase — a phase in which a political solution will be possible in due course. This could mean, again cautiously inferred, that sending extra troops temporarily may have been a success.

There are still obstacles to be overcome. What should be done about Mullah Omar? President Karzai wants to remove him from the terrorist list, making this a pre-condition for the Taliban leader to begin negotiations. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the case that the rest of the world will agree. The Taliban also refuse to negotiate until all foreign troops have left the country.

As long as there is no consensus on the conditions for negotiation, all sides will continue to fight to improve their positions. In diplomatic terms, it is “all hands on deck” for NATO. If the change that I perceive is real, the pressure for the Netherlands to stay in Uruzgan will only increase. Furthermore, under the leadership of another country, there is no guarantee that the successful Dutch approach will be maintained in the province. In NATO’s terms, this approach is based on effective cooperation between soldiers and civilians, which contributes visibly to the stability and security that is so important for development aid. Bailing out now does not seem wise. NATO will not see the withdrawal of Dutch troops, so as not to disrupt the early days of this process. Obama believes that the security situation will enable withdrawal by mid-2011. The Netherlands would then be able to leave in the wake of the Americans.

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