THE WAR in Afghanistan will end not with a formal ceremony of surrender, but with a negotiated deal acceptable to a sufficient number of the right insurgent factions. This should be the limited goal of the offensive US troops will be ready to carry out this summer and fall in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. But there is almost no chance, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent public offer of reconciliation with the Taliban will provide a shortcut to that goal.
The war will not end until the main component of the Taliban, the network headed by Mullah Omar and headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan, loses hope of returning to power. That hardcore group denounced the reconciliation scheme Karzai broached at a recent fundraising conference in London, scorning it as a sign of weakness.
Omar is not about to accept Karzai’s conditions for peace - to renounce ties to Al Qaeda and play by the rules of the democratic game. Omar has no interest in gaining a few cabinet posts in a Karzai government; he wants to reestablish Taliban control over an Islamic caliphate. He also knows he would suffer a humiliating defeat in a secret-ballot election, and he has enough heroin money to disdain any payoff from Karzai’s treasury.
So while local fighters with loose ties to the Taliban may be reasonable partners for peace, no deal can be reached with the Taliban leadership. Still, there are ways to hasten the end of the war. One is exemplified by a recent deal cut between the US military and the 400,000-strong Shinwari tribe in the east of the country. The fact that US officers need to channel $1 million in development projects directly to Shinwari elders, bypassing Karzai’s central government, reflects an awareness of that government’s flagrant corruption. Still, the deal provides a model for similar arrangements that can be made with regional leaders and local insurgent commanders who do not share Omar’s religious motivation.
But the war will not end until Omar’s gang in Quetta is taken off the board. Doing that requires two main steps. One is to uproot the group’s fighters from the Pashtun-dominated southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. The second is to prevail on the Pakistani military to stop letting Omar and his companions use Quetta as a safe haven. Both are doable. The result may not be the transformation of Afghanistan into an ideal liberal democracy, but once the Taliban are prevented from seizing power again, the Obama administration should declare victory and withdraw.