Retaking the Initiative in Afghanistan, Sort Of

I don’t want to make too much of Pakistan’s offer to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban, because there are still a lot of directions it can take, and many of them are probably bad. But it bears noting that the shift responds to Islamabad’s concerns over securing its influence in a post-American Afghanistan, and was triggered by the July 2011 timeframe that President Barack Obama set for beginning an American drawdown.

That suggests two things. First, the regional actors are taking that timeframe a lot more seriously than most American observers, something that was already apparent in the immediate reaction to Obama’s West Point speech.

Second, the application of a time-bounded surge did not create stasis on the ground as many feared. To the contrary, both in terms of military action on the ground and diplomatic action in the background, the U.S. seems to have retaken the initiative in terms of driving developments. In war, as in politics, that’s a significant advantage.

That doesn’t mean we have gotten — or will get — what we want. Pakistan, after all, refused to expand its military action in the FATA, despite significant U.S. pressure to do so.

It could also be that Pakistan cannot deliver “its” Taliban on terms acceptable to the U.S., or at all. For instance, the article mentioned safe passage for al-Qaida as one possible way to split the Haqqani network from the group. That’s clearly anathema to a U.S. strategy that is — in theory, anyway — based on eliminating al-Qaida as a security threat.

The Times quotes Daniel Markey, of the CFR, as saying, “The United States side is pretty worried about seeing a deal emerge that suits everyone other than us.” But that, as much as the very significant challenges the war itself presents, is probably why Afghanistan will prove to be such political kryptonite for the Obama administration.

Because success in Afghanistan — as opposed to against al-Qaida — might very well depend on that kind of outcome. And even though successfully drawing down our commitments in Afghanistan is at this point a more urgent national security priority than “defeating” al-Qaida, it will be very hard for Obama to absorb the domestic political cost of admitting that.