Taliban militants participate in a surrendering ceremony in the Afghan capital. (Photo: Zabi Tamanna / Xinhua)
If you're interested in a "way forward" in Afghanistan that's not built around killing a bunch of innocent people for no reason, then I strongly encourage you to read every word of Carlotta Gall's report in Wednesday's New York Times, "As US Weighs Taliban Negotiations, Afghans Are Already Talking."
Some key points, based on conversations with Afghan officials and Western diplomats in Kabul:
â€¢ Far from being "pie in the sky," discussions with the Taliban leadership are already underway and could be developed into more formal talks with the support of the US. The ongoing talks were actually initiated by an overture from the Taliban: The Taliban leadership council first approached the government about peace talks last year.
â€¢ Officials with contacts within the Taliban said the current discussions had been productive.
â€¢ The peace process might have made greater progress already if the Afghan government and the US had pushed it more forcefully.
â€¢ Afghan parliamentarians involved in the talks said they were waiting for President Karzai to secure guarantees of support for the process from foreign governments - in particular the United States - before they could go further.
â€¢ Negotiations should be expanded to a broad spectrum of Taliban leaders; a policy of talking only to "moderates" is doomed to failure; negotiations have to be conducted with broad consultation among the Taliban leadership and through Pashtun tribal leaders and elders.
â€¢ As part of the ongoing negotiations, the Taliban are demanding an end to house searches and arrests, and the release of Taliban detainees from Afghan jails and the US detention centers at GuantÃ¡namo and Bagram. [Those seem like negotiable demands, don't you think? It's not as if they're insisting that "The official language of Afghanistan will now be Swedish" or "Everyone has to change their underwear three times a day, and they have to wear them on the outside, so we can check."]
The point that the US needs to go beyond endorsing negotiations with "moderate Taliban" was made forcefully by Afghan businesswoman Rangina Hamidi, interviewed on Tuesday on "Democracy Now!" : "extremists" also have to be engaged. She noted that "almost every group that has been involved in the destruction of Afghanistan since the past thirty years" was represented in the US-organized political process for Afghanistan after 2001 - except the Taliban.
Last weekend, President Obama "signaled that reconciliation could emerge as an important initiative" as part of his review of US policy in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported. This is potentially a very hopeful sign. But it is absolutely critical that the "reconciliation" in the new strategy potentially includes Taliban leaders who can actually help deliver peace, not just be a rehash of the existing "reconciliation" policy that has failed:
The problem with the reconciliation process, officials say, is that it demanded that the Taliban lay down their arms in return for security guarantees, which they did not trust either the government to enforce or the Americans to honor.
"We make reconciliation sound like surrender; where has that ever worked?" said one Western official with long experience in Afghanistan, who did not want to be identified because of the political nature of his comments. "What is required is structured engagement with all Afghan communities, including the Pashtun and therefore representatives of the Taliban, around a new political project."
A recent ABC poll found that 64 percent of Afghans support negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan government - whatever its faults, a government selected by a political process endorsed by the US - also supports negotiations. Since we are all about "promoting democracy," shouldn't that count for something.