The Afghan Endgame
Barry, John, Yousafzai, Sami, Moreau, Ron, Newsweek
Byline: John Barry, Sami Yousafzai, And Ron Moreau
Most of the players in the region are already planning for it--except maybe the Taliban.
Almost as soon as President Obama announced that U.S. forces would start leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, a text message began zipping between Afghan insurgents' mobile phones. "Mubarak," it said--Arabic for congratulations. "If you are a believer, you will be a victor," the message continued, quoting the Quran. Then the kicker: "The enemy president is announcing a withdrawal of troops who will leave our country with their heads bowed." Jubilant fighters and commanders quickly forwarded it to everyone in their phones' address books. "In the long history of Afghan fighting, we know that when the enemy puts out a timetable, it means complete failure for them," says a former Taliban cabinet minister, asking not to be named for security reasons.
That was scarcely the signal Washington meant to send. On the contrary, the idea was merely to head off a revolt by antiwar Democrats in America and maybe to scare Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his friends into cleaning up their act. Obama said only when the U.S. withdrawal would start; he very carefully didn't say how big the troop reduction would be. But last December's announcement has set off an ongoing storm of frantic dealmaking and rumormongering throughout the region. Senior Taliban commanders confess they can't make sense of what's happening. Even as they denounce reports of covert talks from news sources such as The New York Times and Al-Jazeera, high-ranking insurgents have begun very cautiously admitting for the first time that peace negotiations are not totally out of the question. "The Taliban will decide about an option other than war when the time comes that would favor such a decision," says one senior Taliban provincial governor.
Washington is eager to make that happen--perhaps more eager than most Americans realize. "There was a major policy shift that went completely unreported in the last three months," a senior administration official tells NEWSWEEK, asking not to be named speaking on sensitive issues. "We're going to support Afghan-led reconciliation [with the Taliban]." U.S. officials have quietly dropped the Bush administration's resistance to talks with senior Taliban and are doing whatever they can to help Karzai open talks with the insurgents, although they still say any Taliban willing to negotiate must renounce violence, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution. (Some observers predict that those preconditions may eventually be fudged into goals.) One particular focus is the "1267 list," which was established in 1999 by the U.N.'s Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee. It takes its name from U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267. "There are 137 Taliban on the list," says the senior administration official. "It's a list of people who cannot travel, cannot have funds?.?.?.?We're taking a very hard look at the 1267 list right now, looking at it on a case-by-case basis. We've been doing it for months."
The abrupt removal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan and his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus may--ironically--be a stroke of luck for Obama. Petraeus's success in Iraq has given him unmatched experience in the art of quietly making deals with insurgents. On Capitol Hill, Petraeus has the stature to sell virtually any shift in policy. And the uproar attending McChrystal's departure means that, as a NATO envoy in Washington says, asking not to be named on a touchy subject: "The need to do something more in Afghanistan is now firmly on the Washington agenda." That means persuading the Taliban to talk peace if at all possible, regardless of which side has the upper hand now. "Waiting for the perfect security situation is like having a baby," says another Western diplomat, likewise unwilling to be identified. "There's never a right time. …