In this season of good will, there is a rare bit of good cheer about the prospects for peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The reason seems to be that some Taliban leaders are concluding that they couldn’t win the civil war that might follow U.S. withdrawal of combat troops.
The Taliban appear to recognize that their leverage, paradoxically, may decline when most U.S. forces depart at the end of 2014. The situation has changed since the 1990s, when the Taliban took power after a civil war: Pakistan is no longer a reliable political patron or financial backer, and it may not provide a haven.
“The Taliban have realized that they can’t achieve military victory,” argues a senior Pentagon official. “They can try to wait the U.S. out, but the price is that they won’t be able to play in the political transition.”
There may be something to Ignatius’ optimism, and we very much hope he is right. It’s not like the Taliban waltzed right into power after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. The Afghan civil war was hard-fought and lasted through 1996. The Taliban’s victory was anything but foreordained, and their ultimate triumph had as much to do with Pakistan’s unwavering support as it did with anything else. If Pakistan is sending mixed signals now, the Taliban may well be moderating its approach so as to not have to fight a civil war it may not easily win.
But Ignatius’ optimism depends on the smooth inter working of a lot of moving parts: Pakistani reasonableness, Taliban realism and moderation, Afghan government competence, Iranian placidity. Washington is unable to control any of these variables now and will have less leverage as the withdrawal process continues. It is possible but by no means inevitable that everything works out, but these variables align just so is a long shot, and hoping that things go well is less than a strategy.
In the Korean and Vietnamese wars, America’s opponents were able to use this country’s desire to end the conflict as leverage against us, and manipulating peace negotiations became a very effective political tool for them. It seems unlikely that the participants in the Afghanistan conflict will turn cooperative and benign just because it suits our political needs for them to behave.