In the Arena

Talk to the Taliban

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Ahmed Rashid, perhaps the best informed journalist in the world when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, confirms my belief that Hamid Karzai’s recent maneuverings are part of a reconciliation strategy with the Taliban:

According to U.S. and Afghan officials, Karzai’s first question when he arrives will be whether Washington supports his efforts at reconciliation with the senior Taliban leadership. In January, theUnited States and NATO agreed to reintegration — bringing in Taliban foot soldiers and low-level commanders — but Washington balked at full reconciliation, saying it wants to see the Taliban weakened militarily over the next six to 12 months before considering talks with its leaders.

Rashid lays out the full complexity of the situation, filling in some details unknown to me–like the fact that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the number 2 Taliban leader captured by the Pakistanis in Karachi a few months ago, was one of Karzai’s interlocutors in reconciliation talks. (It seems clear that Pakistan would only favor reconciliation on its terms…and its terms are ridiculous: the closing of two Indian consulates in Afghanistan.)

Still, this could be a pregnant moment for a settlement–with the threat of  the U.S. military’s summer offensive in Kandahar looming. And there is a need now for a master U.S. negotiator to make this deal. Richard Holbrooke would be the obvious candidate, but he’s had a rocky road with Karzai. In any case, Rashid is right: The President needs to make a decision about this, and fast.