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David Ignatius: Looking beyond the Afhan dead end

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: October 4, 2012
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While the overlooked war in Afghanistan grinds on, a group of officials in Washington, Kabul and Islamabad are exploring a bare-bones strategy that would narrow each side's demands to a set of minimum conditions for escaping the current diplomatic dead end.

The aim is to create a pathway for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from a war that almost nobody sees as “winnable” by military force alone. The goal is a framework for political transition where each side's demands are boiled down to the irreducible essentials — providing a better deal for each party than they could get from battling on.

U.S. officials involved in the informal discussions liken this approach to the 1993 Downing Street Declaration on Northern Ireland that narrowed Catholic and Protestant demands to the basic items that then created space to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the civil conflict there.

U.S. officials have explored such an approach with Gen. Ehsan Ul-Haq, a former chief of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and a former chairman of the Pakistani joint chiefs of staff. He outlined his seven-point “road map” during a recent conversation at the Nixon Center in Washington. The aim of this exercise, he said, was to focus on political transition, rather than the military impasse.

Haq sees two baseline U.S. demands: No al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan, and no return to the Taliban's oppressive policies toward women; the Taliban, according to Haq, has just one irreducible demand, for no more foreign forces in Afghanistan.

These minimum conditions for the two main combatants can probably be met, argues Haq. He notes that in Taliban leader Mohammad Omar's recent message on the Muslim holiday known as the Eid al-Fitr, Omar defended peace talks with the U.S. as a way to “reach our goals” and said that the Taliban would “give all legitimate rights to women in the light of the Islamic principles, national interests and our noble culture.” Other Taliban statements have appeared to reject al-Qaida.

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