The London conference on Afghanistan gets underway this week, and both the Obama administration and Brown government have been raising expectations for it. Among its major components: international support for Hamid Karzai’s efforts to reintegrate low-level Taliban fighters into the new political order. The only thing is, argues Josh Foust, we’re sort of telling ourselves a pleasant economically-deterministic story about why the Taliban fight. Richard Holbrooke is on TV right now talking about how most insurgents fight because of “local grievances.” It’s a good insight, but we have to recognize that we can be either a source or an accelerant of those grievances. Foust points to this account of a reintegrated Hekmatyar fighter justifiably pissed off by a Special Forces raid on his house. Where’s the strategy?

Holbrooke and outgoing U.N. Afghan envoy Kai Eide take that a step further, about a political step NATO can take — nor for reintegration, but for reconciliation. Eide proposes scrubbing the U.N.’s terrorism blacklist for names of sub-Mullah Omar Taliban commanders who aren’t connected to al-Qaeda. Holbrooke backs Eide. The argument: at the very least, it would test the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate with the Karzai government; perhaps it would even fracture elements of the insurgency.

Combined with Foust’s point — these guys don’t all fight because of lack of alternatives; there’s a nest of grievances, and some are inescapably political — the move has some logic as a gambit. But if the idea is really that the Taliban has political reasons behind its war (which is fairly obvious), then it makes sense to ask whether they would negotiate at a time when it feels it has all the momentum behind it. What Holbrooke and McChrystal are talking about is a multifaceted application of political, military, diplomatic and development pressure on the insurgency, so I don’t mean to suggest that talking-or-fighting is a binary choice. It may make sense to have robust mechanisms for both reintegration and reconciliation available, even if we don’t expect immediate results for either.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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