In a striking policy shift, the Afghanistan-Pakistan review appears to embrace the concept of Afghan-led reconciliation with the Taliban. The review does not specify what reconciliation means nor does it explicitly mention the Taliban; rather it talks of a political process in Afghanistan and the region that takes advantage of the security progress in Afghanistan.
The embrace, or at a minimum, the acceptance of reconciliation (a code word for negotiations with the Taliban) is a major change in Washington’s view, which has been developing over the past few months.
Initiating strategic engagement with the Taliban (various initiatives and political exchanges between the Afghan government and the Taliban have been on and off for over a year), of course, might be taken by the Taliban as signal of weakness on the part of the international community.
But waiting to initiate the negotiation process may also hurt the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Both the Afghan government and the international community are likely to have greatest influence before the beginning of the withdrawal of U.S. forces starts in July 2011 — a transition once again reiterated in the review. The review did not specify the number of U.S. forces to be withdrawn and stressed also the commitment to the 2014 timeline.
It is unclear whether sufficient tactical gains have been achieved in southern Afghanistan to allow for confidence in the reconciliation process.
After years of almost a free run in Kandahar and Helmand, the Taliban is clearly feeling the heat and has lost freedom of movement in those areas. But will that be sustainable? Will the Taliban be able to regain strength in the spring through an assassination campaign of government officials and those who receive aid from the government or the international community as they did in Marja? If some sort of negotiated deal is achieved at the provincial level in Kandahar, what is the price Kabul, Kandahari Durrani elites and powerbrokers, the Northern Alliance and the international community are prepared to pay to the Taliban? How likely is it that the Taliban will uphold the redlines that indicate no territorial control and no safe havens for al Qaeda?
The answers will depend on the security situation when any deal is struck — not expected in the near future — and the quality of governance in Afghanistan at that time. Poor and predatory governance can prevent meaningful reconciliation.