The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Taliban Pretend to Bend on Rights, US Still Stuck

Some good tidings for Obama’s Afghanistan strategy? It’s emerging that in a speech at a conference last week in France, where Taliban and Afghan government officials were meeting face to face, the Taliban appeared to be making all the right noises to set themselves up as responsible stakeholders in a modern democratic Afghanistan.

The speech said that a new constitution would protect civil and political rights of all citizens. It promised that women would be allowed to choose husbands, own property, attend school and seek work, rights denied them during Taliban rule, which ended with the 2001 U.S. invasion. The speech was emailed from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

“We are not looking to monopolize power. We want an all-Afghan inclusive government,” the speech said. It was delivered by two Taliban officials, Mawlawi Shahbuddin Dilawar and Muhammad Naeem during the conference on Thursday and Friday.

Unfortunately, there is probably less to this story than meets the eye. The Taliban has everything to gain by running down the clock as the U.S. withdrawal deadline comes closer. It’s likely that the US will have to choose between two unsatisfactory alternatives: keeping more troops in Afghanistan longer than we would like, or going home and leaving the country in worse shape than we would like.

The Taliban has no interest in helping us leave Afghanistan; the more US withdrawal looks like a defeat, the higher their stock with other militant groups around the world and the less they have to worry about compromising with their internal opponents.

Washington seems to have hoped that the Afghan surge would tame the Taliban while the threat of withdrawal would concentrate the mind of the Kabul government on the reforms and improvements that could help it hold onto power as NATO stands down. At this point, it appears from an outsider’s perspective that while some progress has been made on each of these fronts, it is not enough. The Taliban isn’t weak enough and the Afghan government isn’t reformed enough to allow the kind of soft landing the President hoped for.

None of the choices left are particularly attractive, but the White House has some decisions to make. We are hoping for the best.

Published on December 25, 2012 2:45 pm