Supporters of a settlement with the Taliban respond that they are just facing reality -- that protecting the rights of Afghan women is desirable; it is simply not possible. In truth, they know no such thing. Those who predict defeat in Afghanistan significantly overlap with those who confidently predicted defeat in Iraq. Their military judgments merit some skepticism, particularly when American commanders are pursuing a new strategy in Afghanistan they believe may succeed. We should be suspicious of a realism that always amounts to defeatism.
The prospect of serious negotiations with the Taliban does not seem particularly realistic. If America were to insist on protections for the rights of women, ethnic minorities and civil society as preconditions for power sharing discussions with the Taliban, it would probably be a deal breaker. As it stands, the Taliban has every reason to think that it wins by enduring. A panting desire for a hasty deal only encourages this belief. Coming to the table at this point, the Taliban would have little motivation to make concessions on the most fundamental aspects of its ideology.
If the coalition does not insist on the protection of human rights as a precondition for negotiations, the whole thing gets much easier. It is always easy to end a conflict by giving in to the enemy. Reconciliation with the Taliban from a position of weakness -- granting the Taliban control over portions of the country -- bears a close resemblance to surrender. No paper assurances could hide the reality that America, under military pressure from Islamist radicals, had betrayed millions of Afghan men and women into comprehensive tyranny.
When asked last month about the possibility of an American settlement with the Taliban, CIA Director Leon Panetta responded: "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society. We've seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they're convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful."
This is the realistic alternative: Win first, then negotiate.