Senior White House and military officials believe that engaging some levels of the Taliban -- while excluding top leaders -- could help reverse a pronounced downward spiral in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Both countries have been destabilized by a recent wave of violence.
The outreach is a draft recommendation in a classified White House assessment of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, according to senior Bush administration officials. The officials said that the recommendation calls for the talks to be led by the Afghan central government, but with the active participation of the U.S.
The idea is supported by Gen. David Petraeus, who will assume responsibility this week for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen. Petraeus used a similar approach in Iraq, where a U.S. push to enlist Sunni tribes in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq helped sharply reduce the country's violence. Gen. Petraeus earlier this month publicly endorsed talks with less extreme Taliban elements.
The final White House recommendations, which could differ from the draft, are not expected until after next month's elections. The next administration wouldn't be compelled to implement them. But the support of Gen. Petraeus, the highly regarded incoming head of the U.S. Central Command, could help ensure that the policy is put in place regardless of who wins next month's elections.
The strategy then is not to negotiate some sort of agreement with the Taliban as a whole (talks which would only be relevant to some sort of power-sharing agreement) but rather to split off some elements of the Taliban from the group as a whole. Necessarily then, the goals are limited in nature:
Another senior American official said that talks with the Taliban will force the U.S. to make hard decisions about how much to offer the armed group for its support.
The U.S. would certainly be willing to pay moderate Taliban members to lay down their weapons and join the political process, these official said. But Taliban demands for amnesty and formal political authority over remote parts of the country might be harder to stomach, he said.
"The question always comes down to price," he said. "How much should be willing to offer guys like this?"
Indeed, and we're not talking about money. Some elements of the Taliban might be content to take cash to lay down their arms or split off from the Taliban, but the Taliban as a whole wants nothing less than political authority in Afghanistan, to one extent or another, and certainly they want us out. Again this appears to be an attempt to replicate the Awakenings movement in Iraq, but the differences are simply too great. The Taliban is deeply entrenched in Afghanistan and hugely supported by the Pashtuns who comprise the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the same is no less true in western Pakistan across the border from Afghanistan. Unlike in Iraq, Al Qaeda does not consist mostly of foreigners who wish to implement a harsher version of Islam than the Taliban itself wishes to implement, though the Taliban would probably be willing to abandon wholesale support of Al Qaeda in exchange for power in Afghanistan.
UPDATE: More from Spencer Ackerman, who says that Karzai is apparently willing to consider a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, though he also acknowledges based on the above column that the Bush administration is almost certainly not at that point yet.