The high-profile Washington visit of U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai is only partly about smoothing over what has become his extraordinarily prickly relationship with the Obama administration. Even the appearance of smoothing over those rough edges, corruption-related and otherwise, is only part of the story. (Although that part is pretty important to the White House as the Congressional vote nears on President Obama’s demand for $33 billion more in taxpayer money to fund the current military escalation in Afghanistan.)

The most important part of the Karzai visit has to do with resolving the huge strategic disagreement between the Afghan president and his U.S. benefactor on the fundamental question of negotiations and reconciliation. Everybody admits—and history confirms—that every war ultimately involves negotiations at the end. But for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is increasingly isolated from its friends, allies, and even dependents over the key issues of when, with whom, and over what, those negotiations should take place.

The Obama administration agrees that negotiating with the Taliban will be necessary. In January, when U.S., British, and other NATO leaders met in London to discuss Afghan strategy, Pentagon CentCom chief General David Petraeus told the Times of London that he recognized the possibility of “the concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders.”

Kill More Afghans First

Their big hesitation, they say, is on the timing. President Obama’s hand-picked Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal said in London that he hoped the recently announced escalation of 30,000 new troops would weaken the Taliban enough that its leaders would accept a peace deal. In other words they want to weaken the Taliban first—Pentagon-speak for “kill more Afghans.” We should negotiate, but only from “a position of strength.”

They’re wrong. Whatever other things the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan, winning a “position of strength” is not one of them. The biggest U.S./NATO offensive since the beginning of the war in 2001 began in February in Marjah. It failed. According to a survey of Marjah’s men conducted by the International Council on Security and Development, 61 percent feel more negative about the occupation forces after the get-rid-of-the-Taliban-and-win-the-Afghans’-hearts-and-minds military offensive than they did before. Hardly the definition of a position of strength.

An even larger-scale U.S./NATO offensive is scheduled to begin in earnest in early June in and around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the original home of the Taliban. The prospect of U.S. troops emerging in a “position of strength” from that almost certain debacle is, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty lousy.

There is simply no reason to believe that the Taliban leadership will be any more likely to negotiate after more of them (and many more civilians) have been killed, than they are now. U.S. influence over events in Afghanistan is diminishing despite the increase in military attacks. Karzai is eager to initiate negotiations with the Taliban ASAP, and may have already begun moves to do so; he knows that his corrupt and delegitimized government may well not survive any lessening of U.S. support. But because Karzai’s government is widely viewed by most Afghans as not only corrupt but largely unable to implement any serious governance outside of parts of Kabul, the current U.S. prohibition on talks guarantees that negotiations that could lead to real reconciliation cannot go forward. The Taliban needs the U.S. at the table, not just Karzai.

Negotiations Over What?

The Obama administration also insists that any negotiations with the Taliban, whenever they happen, must be limited essentially to terms of surrender. Low-ranking Taliban foot soldiers might be offered “de-radicalization” programs and maybe even some job possibilities, but key regional and national Taliban commanders, the ones who would actually have to sign off on any deal to make it work, would be offered only the option of complete surrender, giving up their weapons and any claim to power or influence, plus maybe the possibility of exile in another country. Saudi Arabia has been mentioned. But the Taliban are Afghans, not Saudis; their goal has always been to rule Afghanistan, not to go abroad. They speak a different language than Saudis do, they are not Arabs. Saudi exile is not likely to win negotiators’ hearts and minds—or acquiescence. It seems those in the Administration floating such trial balloons have forgotten what their own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, answered when challenged by a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Taliban have no tanks, no planes, said the senator, so how is it that they’re winning? “It’s their country,” Mullen answered.

So who’s saying what about all this?

The U.S. position is pretty clear (despite already visible disagreements even within the administration). Efforts to bribe and buy off low-level Taliban foot soldiers are grudgingly acceptable. Serious negotiations with Taliban leadership is forbidden until more Taliban soldiers or leaders (or civilians near them?) have been killed or, more rarely, captured. Any future negotiations with Taliban leaders will be limited to the terms of their surrender; power-sharing in a unified Afghanistan is not an option.

The Afghan government—or at least President Karzai himself, since it’s unclear who else he speaks for even within his own government—wants to begin negotiations with the Taliban right away. He disagrees with his U.S. sponsors on timing, but appears to accept their view that only surrender is an option for top Taliban commanders; he has no interest in sharing power with them.

Pakistan’s primary concern is to insure a reliable surrogate to defend its interests in a post-U.S., post-occupation Afghanistan where arch-rival India will have influence. In the past that surrogate has been the Afghan Taliban, and there’s no indication Islamabad is making a different choice. Pakistan is determined to have a say in when, whether, with whom and over what negotiations might occur; the recent arrest of a top Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, after years of providing him with safe haven in Pakistan, was widely viewed as a message to the U.S. and Kabul, reminding them that if negotiations are going to occur, Pakistan is going to be part of them. Pakistan supports immediate negotiations aimed at a power-sharing role for the Taliban in the future.

The British position and that of some other NATO countries is close to that of Karzai, accepting negotiations with the Taliban at all levels right away. London has accepted (though it is unclear what changes the new government under David Cameron’s Conservative-Lib/Dem coalition might make) the idea of some sort of power-sharing in Afghanistan that could include the Taliban.

Who Else Needs To Be At the Table?

Of those commentators and pundits who recognized the centrality of the reconciliation issue, almost all focused on whether/when/what the U.S. should negotiate with the Talilban. But that’s not enough. If negotiations are to be taken seriously, if there is any hope that reconciliation is possible, who is present is also crucial. Everyone must be at the table. Does that include the Taliban? Of course it does. But Afghanistan isn’t a two-sided country, where the only local players are the U.S.-backed government and the anti-U.S. Taliban. The resistance isn’t only the Taliban, and the government doesn’t reflect much of the population. Afghan society is richly complex, with men and women, rural and urban, cosmopolitan and traditional, a wide variety of ethnicities, languages, and cultures playing important roles. And Afghanistan doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is bordered directly by six complicated countries in a strategic region roiling with political, economic, and social tensions.

Real negotiations mean everyone who has a legitimate stake in the outcome must be at the table. That means the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban, and inevitably some of the other warlords, often longtime clients of the United States, who remain as regressive and repressive towards women as the Taliban ever were. Those warlords exist both within the Afghan government and among the anti-government resistance forces. But it also means including representatives of Afghanistan’s traditional governing structures, the tribe- and village-based leaders, mosque-linked and otherwise, who are recognized as holding the country’s legitimacy. It means women must be involved, both as an organized sector and as individuals, including the professional women’s associations who have recently publicly called for negotiating with the Taliban. It means the traditional and newly rebuilding civil society of both cities and rural areas, including farmers’ alliances and trade unions, organizations of teachers and doctors, students, and so many more.

If the national peace jirga, or council, is held as planned, all of these components of Afghan society must be present. They must be empowered to speak and to participate in the consensus process that Afghan governance has long relied on.

And if an Afghan peace jirga is to succeed, it will have to be part of a much broader international diplomatic process. That means bringing together all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan, and all of the regional powers, including China and India. Key Muslim countries such as Turkey and perhaps the Organization of the Islamic Conference will play vital roles, all under the umbrella of the United Nations. And once all its troops are on their way out the U.S. will have to endorse, bankroll, and support such a campaign—but, crucially, will have to break from its long and painful pattern of dominating such efforts.

With U.S. and NATO troops and mercenaries withdrawn and serious diplomatic efforts underway both inside Afghanistan and in the region, perhaps we can finally begin making good on the enormous debt—financial, humanitarian, developmental and so much more—that we owe to the people of Afghanistan.

But first, everybody has to be at the table.

IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis is the director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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