Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Success in Afghanistan is beginning to come in the first muddy trickles after a long drought.

Small groups of Taliban fighters -- sometimes a dozen with a leader -- are approaching local Afghan government officials, asking what kind of deal they might get. "First, they want to be taken off any list, so they are not targeted," explains a NATO official in Afghanistan. "Second, they want protection from the insurgency. Third, some kind of economic opportunity."

In counterinsurgency doctrine, this is known as "reintegration." The official admits it is currently "spotty" in Afghanistan but spreading in all regions. "It is happening in small numbers -- drip, drip, drip. It has not yet changed the battle space. ... It is not a tipping point, at this point." The goal is to push these numbers much higher, with more insurgents driven to negotiation and exhaustion, so they "put down their weapons and go home."

Many Americans ask: What would victory look like in Afghanistan? It would look like this -- except more of it.

Eighteen months ago, Afghan insurgents had the morale that comes from momentum. But the surge in NATO operations, particularly Special Operations, has started to change the psychological battlefield. Special forces now go after eight to 10 major objectives each night -- perhaps three-quarters of these raids resulting in the death or capture of an insurgent leader. Two Taliban shadow governors -- a key position in their leadership structure -- were killed in the last week. Such roles are quickly refilled, but replacements tend to be less seasoned and more frightened.

"We hear a lot of chatter," says the official, "from networks inside of Afghanistan." Some fighters don't feel "a moment of peace. They can't sleep. They keep moving all the time. They can't plan attacks, because they are planning to survive." And this is opening up a "real rift" with Taliban "bosses leading from the relative comfort of Pakistan." While some units are well supplied, others are "not supplied, not paid, but told to keep fighting."

Reintegration of low- and mid-level fighters is based on their concern for survival. Reconciliation between the Afghan government and higher-level Taliban leaders is a political matter, gaining much recent attention. President Hamid Karzai has convened a High Peace Council, open to Taliban overtures but insisting on certain conditions: repudiating al-Qaeda, laying down arms, accepting the Afghan constitution. The most ideological of Taliban leaders will never reconcile. Others may calculate, as many Sunni leaders eventually did in Iraq, that their current rejectionism is undermining their long-term political influence.

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.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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