WASHINGTON -- The Wikileaks document download -- illustrating Afghan corruption, Pakistani duplicity and Taliban toughness -- revealed little that is new. But it will intensify a popular kind of desperation.
A consensus is growing among foreign policy realists, skittish NATO allies and anti-war activists that the time has come to cut a deal with the Taliban. The Afghan government is hopeless; recent elections were discrediting; nation-building has failed. The only hope is to pursue not only reintegration of low- and mid-level Taliban fighters into Afghan society but reconciliation with Taliban leaders based in Pakistan. As long as these leaders end their relationship with al-Qaeda -- the only firm, non-negotiable red line -- the Taliban could return to effective control of southern Afghanistan in a more decentralized system.
Some Afghans are preparing for this prospect -- particularly those who find themselves on the wrong side of the red line. "Women are living in great fear for a peace deal with the Taliban because of what it will mean for their rights," says the manager of an Afghan woman's shelter. In areas currently controlled by the Taliban, schools for girls are shut down, women terrorized for working outside the home, woman politicians and activists attacked and murdered. A typical "night letter" from the Taliban reads: "We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and we shall set fire to your daughter." An Afghan women's rights activist recently explained to Human Rights Watch, "Every woman activist who has raised her voice in the last 10 years fears they (the Taliban) will kill us."
This debate is not only a conflict of two policy views but of two worlds. Recently, I attended a meeting of diplomats, foreign policy experts and journalists where a diplomatic settlement with the Taliban was broadly endorsed. The participants admitted that some regrettable abuses would result. But Afghanistan, in the general view, had become a costly distraction from issues such as Iran and North Korea. Best to cut our losses and get out. Around the polished table, every participant was a well-dressed, Western man, casually condemning millions of poor and powerless women to fear and slavery.