Obama’s Afghanistan problem: Neither Karzai nor the Taliban like the ‘reconciliation’ script

Tony Karon writes: President Barack Obama huddled with President Hamid Karzai in Chicago on Sunday, urging Afghanistan’s leader to accelerate negotiations with the Taliban over a political solution to the longest war in America’s history. But the prospect for Karzai negotiating successfully with the insurgents is clouded by a question raised by Josef Stalin, on the eve of World War II, in response to the suggestion that he offer concessions to the Pope: “How many divisions does he have?” The Taliban now ask the same question about Karzai. And should the Afghan leader also ask himself the question, he might reach a similarly dispiriting conclusion. Karzai’s independent power base is minimal, as is his ability to influence the outcome of his country’s civil war absent direct U.S. involvement. And that gives neither Karzai nor the Taliban much incentive to cut a deal with the other.

While acknowledging “hard days ahead,” Obama was painting a picture of the “Afghan war as we understand it (being) over” after the U.S. combat role ends in 2014 and Afghanistan entering a “transformational decade of peace and stability and development.” But his commander on the ground offered a more chilling assessment on Sunday. ”I don’t want to, again, understate the challenge that we have ahead of us,” Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan, told a media briefing on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Chicago on Sunday. “The Taliban is still a resilient and capable opponent in the battle space. There’s no end of combat before the end of 2014. And, in fact, the Taliban will oppose the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) after 2014.”

In other words, the war won’t end with NATO withdrawal.

It’s the realization that the Taliban will remain very much alive and kicking after NATO leaves that has prompted Obama to press upon Karzai the need to engage with greater urgency in reconciliation talks with the Taliban — and also to implement electoral reforms to diminish corruption and make elections more transparent. But Karzai is a survivor by instinct, and neither electoral reform nor serious talks with the Taliban do much to enhance his prospects of political survival. [Continue reading…]

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