slamabad: US President Barack Obama is about to take what some see as his most consequential foreign policy decision this year. Later this month he will decide on how many troops to pull out from Afghanistan beginning in July and the pace of the withdrawal in coming months. However, the critical decision will not be about numbers — the size of next month's pullout — but the strategy that the remaining US/Nato forces will implement in Afghanistan. Will they continue to intensify the war effort or gradually stand down (and concentrate on training Afghan security forces) to give a chance to the peace process that the Obama administration is now committed to?
Top administration officials have made it clear that the Afghan war will eventually have to end by a negotiated settlement. This stance has aligned Washington with the growing international consensus that believes that an end to the conflict should be hastened by talks with the Taliban. The US Special Envoy to the region, Marc Grossman, who has been shuttling between Kabul, Islamabad and Washington, has been mandated to pursue the "reconciliation process" and reach out to the Taliban.
Osama bin Laden's killing has given President Obama much greater room to manoeuvre than he had when he announced his surge strategy in December 2009. It has strengthened his ability to take a more bold course and prevail over his military commanders who still want to establish supremacy on the battlefield and "negotiate only with their boots on the Taliban's neck", as one European diplomat put it. Most American officials, however, acknowledge that the 2014 deadline — when US and Nato troops will hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces and end their combat mission — can only be met if there is a political settlement. This is why the strategic decision that Obama has to take is not about the size of troop reductions this summer, but how to redefine the Afghan mission. Will the political objective of seeking a negotiated peace — clearly set out in Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's Asia Society speech in February — now drive the military strategy or work the other way around, as has been the case so far? The strategy that is chosen will determine whether this will help or hinder the peace process, especially as violence has intensified in recent weeks with the onset of the traditional fighting season.
If the Pentagon insists on following the line laid down by the outgoing US commander David Petraeus, and the mission in Afghanistan persists with its present fight-and-talk approach, this will complicate, if not impede the move towards reconciliation that most Afghans fervently wish to see. Bringing military pressure to bear in an effort to soften the adversary's negotiating stance is a well-rehearsed tactic. But there comes a point when this approach runs its course and a pause in fighting is essential to allow diplomatic space for negotiations.
Washington acknowledges that historically all such conflicts end by a negotiated political settlement, and so must the Afghan war. But it has yet to accept the proposition that continued military escalation simultaneous with the pursuit of a negotiated settlement would diminish, not enhance, prospects for such an outcome. Vigorous military campaigns involving night raids are seen by Afghan officials as having the opposite effect to that intended. They strengthen the Taliban's will to fight and offer, by way of civilian casualties, a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban.
The notion of talks with the Taliban only from a position of strength is also predicated on an unreliable assumption — that the tenth year of war will produce a game changer that nine fighting seasons have not. It overlooks another reality. The Afghan Taliban will not negotiate if they think they are weak and being shot at. Indications are that they will do so only if they can engage in talks as "equal" partners. The logic of defeating the Taliban before talking to them makes little sense.