Looking beyond the Afghan dead end

WASHINGTON — While the overlooked war in Afghanistan grinds on, a group of officials in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad are exploring a bare-bones strategy that would narrow each side’s demands to a set of minimum conditions for escaping the current diplomatic dead end.

The aim is to create a pathway for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from a war that almost nobody sees as “winnable” by military force alone. The goal is a framework for political transition where each side’s demands are boiled down to the irreducible essentials — providing a better deal for each party than they could get from battling on.

U.S. officials involved in the informal discussions liken this approach to the 1993 Downing Street Declaration on Northern Ireland that narrowed Catholic and Protestant demands to the basic items that then created space to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the civil conflict there.

U.S. officials have explored such an approach with Gen. Ehsan Ul-Haq, a former chief of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and a former chairman of the Pakistani joint chiefs of staff. He outlined his seven-point “road map” during a recent conversation at the Nixon Center in Washington. The aim of this exercise, he said, was to focus on political transition, rather than the military impasse.

Haq sees two baseline U.S. demands: No al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, and no return to the Taliban’s oppressive policies toward women; the Taliban, according to Haq, has just one irreducible demand, for no more foreign forces in Afghanistan.

These minimum conditions for the two main combatants can probably be met, argues Haq. He notes that in Taliban leader Mohammad Omar’s recent message on the Muslim holiday known as the Eid al-Fitr, Omar defended peace talks with the U.S. as a way to “reach our goals” and said that the Taliban would “give all legitimate rights to women in the light of the Islamic principles, national interests and our noble culture.” Other Taliban statements have appeared to reject al-Qaida.

Haq’s road map also addresses the core demands of other parties: for Afghanistan’s Tajik and Hazara communities, he would stress reconstruction and economic assistance, as well as a broad process of national reconciliation — for which the Omar’s Eid statement also indicated support. To calm the region, Haq proposed a kind of Afghan neutrality, with no foreign interference. And to address Pakistan’s anxieties, he proposed that Afghanistan take back its millions of refugees who fled the war, and the two countries jointly establish a border that, in his words, is “hardened, regulated and stabilized.”

While Haq’s formula emerged through a private “Track Two” process, similar discussions have taken place among a “core group” that includes the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar disclosed the confidential three-way talks last month, and officials say the Pakistanis are urging the Taliban to enter negotiations. The Pakistanis evidently have concluded that a negotiated political transition is better for their security than the alternative of a ragged transition and possible civil war. One small success of the core group is that Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. have agreed on arranging “safe passage” so that Taliban leaders can attend peace discussions inside Afghanistan.

Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has continued his quiet shuttle diplomacy trying to coax the Afghan parties toward the kind of dialogue that could avert a civil war when the U.S. begins to pull out its main combat force next year. One positive factor was agreement in May on a “strategic partnership” document that pledges the U.S. will continue to support Afghan security forces for 10 years after NATO troops leave in 2014. In Grossman’s view, this will reassure Afghans (especially the Tajiks, Hazaras and other non-Pashtun groups) that the U.S. isn’t abandoning them — and warn the Taliban that it can’t expect a cakewalk into Kabul when most Americans leave in 2014.

The frustration of the Afghan War has been dramatized by the sharp increase recently in “green on blue” killings of NATO forces by the Afghan security forces they’re supposedly trying to help.

Given the dead end in Afghanistan, you might think that the war there — and strategies for ending it — would be a big topic in the U.S. presidential campaign. But sadly, soldiers and diplomats continue to operate in a political vacuum, and the candidates act as if the brutal Afghanistan conflict will somehow solve itself.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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