“Planting the seeds of victory” in Afghanistan without trying to harvest the victory

Two pieces about Afghanistan caught my attention this week. First, Michael Gerson writes about the “seeds of victory” he perceives being planted there. These seeds consist of what always matters most in a fight — disrupting the enemy and killing as many of them as possible.
To this end, says Gerson, “Special Forces now go after eight to 10 major objectives each night — perhaps three-quarters of these raids result in the death or capture of an insurgent leader.” Thus, “two Taliban shadow governors — a key position in the leadership structure — were killed last week. Such leaders are quickly replaced, but the replacements tend to be inexperienced and frightened.
Indeed, the Taliban’s “chatter” reflects that its terrorists can’t sleep, and are constantly on the move, unable to carry out attacks because their focus is on surviving. This situation creates a rift between the insurgents and their bosses who are relatively safe and comfortable in Pakistan.
The second story involves U.S. efforts to promote a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S.-led forces have gone so far as to facilitate the passage of senior Taliban leaders to Kabul for talks with Karzai’s government.
These stories reflect that the U.S. is simultaneously playing the “strong horse” — dealing blow after blow to the Taliban — and the “weak horse” — looking for a way out of the fight. As one would expect, the Taliban appears to have responded accordingly. Initially, its strategy was simply to wait out the U.S., which has announced its intention to begin leaving Afghanistan in mid-2011. But, as a result of the beating it’s taking in the interim, the Taliban now seeks a respite by showing increased interest in a negotiated settlement.
If the U.S. were seeking a victory, or anything seriously resembling one, it would press its advantage and abandon its timetable for withdrawal. But President Obama, who rarely if even speaks of victory, is seeking a way out. Thus, it makes sense for him to signal increased interest in, and to faciliate, negotiations. Unfortunately, America’s negotiating position will never be stronger — Obama has seen to that.
Yet, the strength of our negotiating position is, for the most part, illusory. The Taliban’s objective almost certainly is to buy time. If the U.S. continues to plant the “seeds of victory,” the Taliban might enter into some sort of an agreement, but only one that would enable it to dig up the “seeds,” and plants its own, once the U.S. presence has significantly diminished.
As between the Taliban and Obama, negotiations may represent a win-win situation. But that’s not the case when it comes to the people of Afghanistan and the fight against global terrorism.

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