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Wishful Thinking, Not Strategy Is Driving Obama's Plan In Afghanistan

The recent parliamentarian elections in Afghanistan have eloquently testified to the courage of the Afghan people to defy threats, kidnappings and attacks by the Taliban. Yet the low voter turnout, as well as the ongoing violence, raise questions about whether the Taliban can be defeated or coerced in a negotiation to end the violence.

It appears that the Obama administration's goal is not to defeat the Taliban militarily, but to hope that a "mini-surge" will drive the Taliban to the bargaining table and allow the United States to negotiate an honorable exit from Afghanistan.

The problem is that the Obama administration has not created the conditions that could make such a negotiated solution possible. Its approach is wishful thinking masquerading as strategy.

No government can hope to win at the negotiating table what it cannot defend on the battlefield. Insurgents need to understand that they cannot defeat or outlast the government's forces. The intended purpose of the additional 30,000 American troops was to take the fight to the Taliban and secure the population. But these troops were well below the number initially requested by U.S. military commanders. So far they have been unable to prevent the Taliban from making advances across southern, eastern and even northern Afghanistan. 

Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has admitted that reconciliation in Afghanistan is only possible "from a position of strength. And we're not there."

Further, in his December 2009 West Point speech, President Obama stated that U.S. troops would start coming home in July 2011. By setting this artificial deadline, the president has made withdrawal easier for our NATO allies who are eager to leave the field as well. And it has granted important bargaining leverage to the Taliban. With one foot already out the door, we have signaled that we lack the stamina to sustain the fight. With every soldier we withdraw from Afghanistan, we lose ability to influence the negotiations. So why should the Taliban negotiate?

The Obama administration has also been unable to establish a single diplomatic framework for talks to take place. Currently, at least four other countries -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE -- are talking to Taliban officials. Pursuing their own agendas, they are meddling in the country's internal affairs, undermining the central government and efforts to secure and stabilize the country. These separate and uncoordinated forays have sent mixed messages to the Taliban; they have not always supported U.S. policy preferences.

A related problem is that America's partner, the government of President Hamid Karzai, is seen as erratic and massively corrupt, with little legitimacy or popular support after last year's widespread election fraud. Earlier this year, Karzai embarked on a risky reconciliation effort with senior Taliban commanders that has been poorly coordinated with American-led efforts to reintegrate lower-level "dollar-a-day" Taliban foot soldiers.

The ad hoc nature of these disjointed engagements reflects another complicating factor: To negotiate with an insurgency, a government needs first-rate intelligence. Yet the Taliban is not monolithic. The movement consists of a loose amalgam of different tribes and criminal networks fighting under the same banner. By its very nature, these groups pose very difficult intelligence targets. They often have their own dialects, they are tight-knit and they are very hard to infiltrate. Yet the United States faces enormous challenges to its ability to peer inside these different Talibans, to grasp their organizational structure, and to evaluate their leadership and actions.

As General David Petraeus has said, you can't fight your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency. A corollary is that you need to distinguish between those groups who want to reconcile and those who do not. Without the benefit of solid intelligence, we cannot judge whether any of the Taliban may have more limited grievances that can be addressed without compromising core U.S. interests. Too often in Afghanistan, we are flying blind. We don't have a good sense of which Taliban officials can speak with authority, bring along their supporters and implement a peace settlement.

Finally, even if we could somehow unify the diplomatic process and invite the Taliban to the negotiating table, it is not clear that they wish to engage seriously with us. Some Taliban representatives have said that the organization has no interest in talking to anyone until all foreign fighters -- meaning U.S. and NATO forces -- leave the country. This past June, CIA Director Leon Panetta confirmed that, "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaeda."

Obama's hope of engaging the Taliban cannot succeed without a changed approach. The Obama team needs to increase American leverage and revise the Taliban's calculations. This means allowing Petraeus more time to be successful, which in turn will depend on Obama reminding the American people, as he did when running for president, why prevailing in Afghanistan is important to U.S. national security.

It also means developing a negotiating strategy with Pakistan, who has the military presence, strategic patience, and control over the Taliban to bring it to the bargaining table. The United States can then help Kabul and Islamabad craft a settlement that honors Afghan sovereignty, eliminates safe havens for Al Qaeda and helps stabilize Pakistan.

Over a year and a half ago, President Obama stated that the United States would talk to the Taliban. Now he needs a plan for making these talks worthwhile.

Mitchell Reiss, is president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland and the author of the just published Open Road E-Riginal ebook, "Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists." For more information, click here.

View an interview with Reiss, click here.

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