Why Talking to the Taliban Is the Only Option

U.S. troops at the site of an explosion in Kandahar on May 19, 2011, while civilians look on. Ahmad / Reuters-Landov

Talking to its enemies is not something that has ever come easily to America, a country that believes in good and evil, black and white, with few shades of gray. Nevertheless, that's the way most wars end. And as President Obama has at last acknowledged, it's the way the 10-year war in Afghanistan must and should end.

Think back to an even bloodier conflict in another faraway land. In early 1968 the U.S. Army and Marines won a famous victory at great cost against an insurgent army's mass assault. But the dean of American television journalists, Walter Cronkite, wasn't fooled by the defeat of the Tet Offensive. Touring South Vietnam that February, he soon concluded that, contrary to U.S. generals' optimistic predictions, the best military outcome America could hope for was a bloody stalemate. On Feb. 27, 1968, he went on the CBS Evening News and told the American people that "the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who have lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could." His wise words caused a political earthquake. Within a few weeks, President Johnson had decided not to run for reelection and had launched what became the Paris peace process.

America's troops in Afghanistan have done the best they can. But despite their many tactical and local victories, they cannot by themselves defeat an insurgent force whose chief aim is to expel foreign forces from its home country. The political settlement America and its allies have been struggling to uphold is unsustainable unless and until the forces of conservative religious nationalism as represented by the Taliban are somehow dealt into the game. The truth is that when the West helped the northern Afghan warlords drive the Taliban from power, we did not defeat the Taliban. Instead, we merely pushed them back—east and south and underground.

Worse, the peace that was then brokered, at the December 2001 Bonn conference and afterward, was a victors' peace. The Taliban were not dealt into the agreement. And so they came creeping back, tentatively at first, but now in full and violent spate. The West has unwittingly become involved in a multiplayer, multidimensional, multidecade conflict, a struggle between Islam and secularism, conservatism and modernism, communism and capitalism, town and country, the Pashtun and their ethnic rivals, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and Turkmen.

With the death of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration has at last been freed to acknowledge that there will be no military solution. What is needed, as the president told the BBC on the eve of last week's visit to London, is a new political settlement for Afghanistan. It was a tacit acceptance of what America's greatest contemporary diplomat—my late friend, colleague, and sparring partner Richard Holbrooke—often said: we are attacking the wrong enemy in the wrong country. The real enemy is Al Qaeda, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, in dozens of other places in the Middle East, and even in some of the great cities of the West. However much we may dislike the Taliban's social agenda, they are not global jihadists. Their only real quarrel with the West is the presence of our forces in their homeland.

None of that is to say we should withdraw unconditionally. A serious peace deal will be hard work. For better or worse, the West's economic and political realities will allow only three years or so to pull all its forces out of combat in Afghanistan. Negotiating a sustainable new settlement will be like running a marathon in the time of a 10,000-meter race. It's about much more than talking to the Taliban. The process should resemble a double-decker bus. On the lower deck should be assembled all the main parties to the civil conflict that has blighted Afghanistan since before the 1979 Soviet invasion. On the upper deck should ride all the regional parties to the dispute, the neighbors and near neighbors, all of whom have their clients within the country. The only way to avoid another round of the Great Game is to include Pakistan, India, China, Russia, the 'stans of Central Asia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and, yes, Iran, as stakeholders. None of them has anything to gain from an Afghanistan in anarchy, exporting drugs and refugees and terrorism.

U.S. diplomacy's A-team is already on the case. But success will require Obama himself and, above all, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to engage personally in brokering a new and lasting settlement. Only thus can we do proper honor to the courage and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces who have fought and died in Afghanistan.

Cowper-Coles's memoir of his time as Britain's Afghan envoy, cables from Kabul, has just been published by Harper Press.