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Afghanistan's new goal: deal with the Taliban

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 28 January 2010

While the UK holds an international conference on the future of the Afghan mission, Nick Paton Walsh reports on how the ground may be set for a political deal with the Taliban.

Taliban militia (Getty)

The Soviets never called it "socialist", pointed out one 80s analysis of Afghanistan's last war. They always referred to their latest imperial gambit as a "national democratic" republic.

To deem it a socialist republic, would, the author Anthony Arnold pointed out, have committed them almost eternally to trying to keep it within their Communist arms.

It would have admitted a place in their family to what would soon be an unconquerable country to the Soviets. It would have made withdrawal ideologically impossible. Arnold argued the Soviets knew - by refusing the title of socialist to "the graveyard of empires" - that even as early as the mid-eighties they might have to get out somehow.

Drawing parallels with the Soviet occupation irks diplomats in Kabul, understandably perhaps.

But there is something comparable to this in the US administration's recent redefinition of their goals.

About 12 months ago, America was committed to the fight until, if you followed the rhetoric of some officials, Afghanistan was as comfortable and stable as Illinois. But Obama's lengthy mulling of his next move had one discernible effect in his recent speech on the way forward: he massively reduced the scope of US ambitions and quite simply made defeating al-Qaida the target of the US occupation.

The condition his forces left that country in needed only to assist that one goal. Afghanistan had to be able to more or less govern itself and not harbour terrorists - everything else was secondary.

It is politically pragmatic: the old goals were a huge ambition, to which the resources now applied - even after 30,000 more troops are added - were barely adequate.

Now the new goal is exceptionally small, and the resources perhaps enough to achieve it. Mr Obama's chance of claiming success is significantly larger now ahead of the mid-term elections, and the mission he sells to the American people is a lot more palatable.

He's saving them from Bin Laden and his future spawn, not fixing up a mountainous country that - to many Americans - is thousands of miles away and has been ungovernable for decades.

That's not the only recent sea change in US policy: General Stanley McChrystal, a special forces expert who majored in quite ruthlessly hunting down insurgent leaders in Iraq, has come out almost touchy-feely recently, telling the Financial Times that a political settlement was the only way forward.

He said there had been enough fighting. Some Taliban should be able to join the government.

(His comments echoed a commander we met last year in Nurestan, who said, after Iraq, they had learned they "couldn't kill their way to victory" - they eventually had to talk to the insurgency.)

Cue Richard Holbrooke, the White House's special envoy to Afghanistan - almost invisible during the recent electoral crisis, but now quite often seen offering a branch of peace to the Karzai administration.

His most recent comments, that a UN list of Taliban who face sanctions should be revised partially.

The ground is quite simply being set for a political deal with the Taliban; the hope being moderates will join the government, extremists will feel marginalised.

You could call it "Taliban lite", eventually Kabul could be fronted by the faltering Mr Karzai (after two attempts he has still not managed to get parliament to endorse his cabinet) and power held by a clique of warlords and former insurgents.

Violence could ebb and more importantly a stability will emerge in which the existence of government - of some sort of state - will pragmatically take precedence over the quality of daily life created.

This is what Britain has been advocating for almost a year now fuelled by a dose of realism, the massive collapse of British popular support for the war and imminent elections.

And it is what the January 28 super-conference in London is all about.

UK officials have been pushing it as a "landmark" - one in what was then an otherwise bare landscape - since November. Gordon Brown wants to gather everyone together, set a timetable and come up with some resolutions. And he wants to be seen to be doing it.

There is something - again - a little virtual about the current thinking. A series of broad statements hoping to set a strategic path, where for months there has been none.

There is clearly a hope that some sort of real negotiations can take place. There has been for a while.

But the death toll is rising, the January "number" (although figures seem a very barren way of measuring the constant losses) is already massive compared to last year's. Britain's casualties will soon parallel those of the Falklands war.

Based on this perhaps reductive measure, the Taliban are not losing, despite the Nato change of tactics.

I have not spoken to anyone in the Taliban for months, but all the same you might wonder why they would choose now as the time to talk.

The Taliban, most of them, are not in any hurry. They live there.

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