Afghanistan: Can This War Be Saved?

After the Taliban, Back to Normal. View the photo gallery. James Reeve

Almost as soon as President Obama announced that U.S. forces would start leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, a text message began zipping between Afghan insurgents' mobile phones. "Mubarak," it said—Arabic for congratulations. "If you are a believer, you will be a victor," the message continued, quoting the Quran. Then the kicker: "The enemy president is announcing a withdrawal of troops who will leave our country with their heads bowed." Jubilant fighters and commanders quickly forwarded it to everyone in their phones' address books. "In the long history of Afghan fighting, we know that when the enemy puts out a timetable, it means complete failure for them," says a former Taliban cabinet minister, asking not to be named for security reasons.

That was scarcely the signal Washington meant to send. On the contrary, the idea was merely to head off a revolt by antiwar Democrats in America and maybe to scare Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his friends into cleaning up their act. Obama said only when the U.S. withdrawal would start; he very carefully didn't say how big the troop reduction would be. But last December's announcement has set off an ongoing storm of frantic dealmaking and rumormongering throughout the region. Senior Taliban commanders confess they can't make sense of what's happening. Even as they denounce reports of covert talks from news sources such as The New York Times and Al-Jazeera, high-ranking insurgents have begun very cautiously admitting for the first time that peace negotiations are not totally out of the question. "The Taliban will decide about an option other than war when the time comes that would favor such a decision," says one senior Taliban provincial governor.

Washington is eager to make that happen—perhaps more eager than most Americans realize. "There was a major policy shift that went completely unreported in the last three months," a senior administration official tells NEWSWEEK, asking not to be named speaking on sensitive issues. "We're going to support Afghan-led reconciliation [with the Taliban]." U.S. officials have quietly dropped the Bush administration's resistance to talks with senior Taliban and are doing whatever they can to help Karzai open talks with the insurgents, although they still say any Taliban willing to negotiate must renounce violence, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution. (Some observers predict that those preconditions may eventually be fudged into goals.) One particular focus is the "1267 list," which was established in 1999 by the U.N.'s Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee. It takes its name from U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267. "There are 137 Taliban on the list," says the senior administration official. "It's a list of people who cannot travel, cannot have funds...We're taking a very hard look at the 1267 list right now, looking at it on a case-by-case basis. We've been doing it for months."

The abrupt removal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan and his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus may—ironically—be a stroke of luck for Obama. Petraeus's success in Iraq has given him unmatched experience in the art of quietly making deals with insurgents. On Capitol Hill, Petraeus has the stature to sell virtually any shift in policy. And the uproar attending McChrystal's departure means that, as a NATO envoy in Washington says, asking not to be named on a touchy subject: "The need to do something more in Afghanistan is now firmly on the Washington agenda." That means persuading the Taliban to talk peace if at all possible, regardless of which side has the upper hand now. "Waiting for the perfect security situation is like having a baby," says another Western diplomat, likewise unwilling to be identified. "There's never a right time."

The mess in Afghanistan should have come as no surprise. As the U.S. led invasion got underway in late 2001, a group of CIA "Red Team" analysts got their usual assignment to play devil's advocate. Everyone else was sure that Osama bin Laden would be killed or captured, a democratic government would be set up in place of the Taliban regime in Kabul, and America would rebuild the shattered nation. The Red Team's paper—only a thin handful of pages, according to two sources who saw it but ask not to be named on such a sensitive topic—had a simple message: this plan can't work. Afghanistan had no history of strong central government, and efforts by foreign invaders to impose their will had uniformly failed. The best America could reasonably hope for was to do as the British did in the 19th century and adopt the Afghans' own tradition of paying off provincial warlords and sending out occasional punitive expeditions against the recalcitrant. The paper had a catchy title: "Chaosistan."

Back in 2001–02, the paper had little circulation outside the agency. But when Obama took office in January 2009, vowing to win the war in Afghanistan, CIA Director George Tenet remembered it and ordered an update for the new administration. The Red Team added yet another warning in its rewrite. Back in 2001, the CIA's candidate to head a new Afghan government, Hamid Karzai, had seemed an ideal choice: brave, able, charismatic, with impressive political and tribal credentials. But the 2009 revision said a problem had come up during Karzai's years in power. America was pumping billions into Afghanistan, and much of that money was being diverted to the Afghan elite—which was normal in Afghanistan, the paper said. But too much was being shunted to Karzai's family and friends, shortchanging the other warlords and factions who needed to be paid off, the paper warned. As a consequence, Karzai was losing legitimacy.

Everyone agrees that McChrystal did his best to make the current strategy work before his dismissal last month. But that lack of legitimacy undercut his efforts. The Marja district in southern Helmand province, which was supposed to be a model of counterinsurgency, is still "a bleeding ulcer," in McChrystal's own words. The city that was next on his to-do list, Kandahar, remains essentially untouched—and it's starting to look like another Fallujah just waiting to happen. And the problems keep getting worse. McChrystal was given far too few troops to defend the border, so insurgents flooded in from Pakistan unhindered. Just before being called home, he had to approve a major counteroffensive in Kunar province, where Taliban were clearly massing for an assault on Kabul. A conference of NATO's heads of government is scheduled for Lisbon in November, and if things don't improve before then, U.S. forces can likely say goodbye to many of their foreign partners in Afghanistan.

Most of the other players in the region are already planning for the endgame. Pakistan has begun advertising its supposed ability to broker a deal between Karzai and Pakistan's favored faction of the Afghan insurgency, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. India, alarmed by the prospect of Afghanistan under Pakistani sway, has been setting up consulates around the country and (according to equally alarmed Pakistani officials) dispensing cash to allies. Iran has intensified its program to draw the western city of Herat and its surrounds into ever closer economic ties. And Saudi Arabia, which used to be Kabul's best hope for a mediated settlement, has grown wary of deeper involvement, according to Saudi diplomats.

The problem, as the military adage goes, is that in war the enemy gets to vote on any plan. And the Taliban may not be bluffing when they say that they're not interested in talks with Karzai or anyone else. Senior Taliban members scoff at talk of the 1267 list. "Karzai is saying, 'We will get you off the blacklist,'?" the former minister says. "But we don't care. We don't have bank accounts, and we only travel between Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes in cars, sometimes on donkeys. We don't need passports or U.N. authorization for that." The ad-ministration needs to show some sort of progress by the end of the year to forestall calls for a real pullout. The Taliban say they're prepared to hold out far longer than that for victory.

With Michael Hirsh in Washington and Christopher Dickey in Paris