In a national settlement, some kind of power-sharing arrangement is probably inevitable. But sharing power in a united government is very different from the concession of Taliban control over any portion of Afghanistan's territory. This would incite ethnic conflict and recreate the conditions that led to the 9/11 attacks. It is the definition of American defeat.
Political reconciliation is the objective. But it is only conceivable if momentum toward reintegration continues and gathers -- and this, in large part, is a military task. Many have argued that an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan will not be achieved by military force alone. True enough. But an acceptable outcome is enabled by military pressure.
That pressure is currently being undermined by a Taliban argument. President Obama's July 2011 deadline for the beginning of American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is being used, according to the NATO official, as "an opportunity for propaganda." "They are trying to convince Afghans that we are out in July. They are saying we will be gone, telling people, 'We will remember our friends, and remember our enemies.'"
There are two ways to combat this claim. The first is to build up the Afghan army and police, so that an eventual American drawdown will not leave a void. "This is one area," says my source, "where the enemy has misjudged. They said that our training goals for the army and police were too ambitious. But we are meeting our growth numbers, and the quality of the force is taking off." The task remains "very challenging," but, with enough partnership and patience, it is achievable.
The second response is to make clear that America is not abandoning Afghanistan in July. The message should be, according to the official, "As conditions exist, there will be a responsible drawdown."
It is America's commander in chief who has created a destructive ambiguity on this point. And only he can remove it.