Just a few days after Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, speaking in Islamabad, Pakistan, called the Taliban part of Afghanistan's "political fabric," U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the Financial Times why he thought the U.S. troop surge could lead to a negotiated peace with the Taliban. FT reports that "by using the reinforcements to create an arc of secure territory stretching from the Taliban’s southern heartlands to Kabul, Gen McChrystal aims to weaken the insurgency to the point where its leaders would accept some form of settlement with Afghanistan’s government."
“As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting,” he told FT. “What I think we do is try to shape conditions which allow people to come to a truly equitable solution to how the Afghan people are governed.”
And despite America's difficult eight years of combat in Afghanistan and the Taliban's often brutal behavior when they were in power from 1996-2001, McChrystal did not rule out a governing role for the Islamic fundamentalists. McChrystal said: “I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past." McChrystal spoke to an FT reporter on his way to London to attend a Thursday conference with European allies intended to rally same around the general's "ambitious" counter-insurgency plans in Afghanistan.
Gates' and McChrystal's quasi-overture to Taliban leadership comes as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai works on an ambitious plan of his own, a reconciliation package aimed at tempting fighters away from the Taliban by offering money and jobs to draw them back to civilian life. It is probably no coincidence the abrupt U.S. openness to a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan was accompanied this week by the leak of a Dec. 22 briefing in Washington that detailed the growing reach and effectiveness of the Taliban resistance to the Karzai administration and his U.S. enablers. The problem is, with Americans suffering casualties in 2009 at twice the rate of 2008, with the U.S. public clearly growing restive with the war and unhappy about reports of corruption and incompetence out of Kabul, what would prompt the Taliban to negotiate now when time and momentum seem on their side? “You can kill Taliban forever," says McChrystal, "because they are not a finite number."
And it's one thing, of course, to invite the Taliban to the table. What to do with them when they get there is a whole other problem. Gates seems keenly aware: "The question is whether they are prepared to play a legitimate role in the political fabric of Afghanistan going forward, meaning participating in elections, meaning not assassinating local officials and killing families," he said. "The question is what do the Taliban want to make out of Afghanistan? When they tried before, we saw before what they wanted to make and it was a desert, culturally and every other way."