U.S. no longer hopes to batter Taliban into a deal. U.S. strategy now focused on setting stage for exit.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - With the surge of U.S. troops over and the Taliban still a potent threat, U.S. generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal.
The once ambitious U.S. plans for ending the war are now being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves in the years after most Western forces depart, and to ensure Pakistan is on board with any eventual settlement. Military and diplomatic officials here and in Washington said that despite attempts to engage directly with Taliban leaders this year, they now expect that any significant progress will come only after 2014, once the bulk of NATO troops have left.
"I don't see it happening in the next couple years," said a senior coalition officer. He and a number of other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the effort to open talks.
"It's a very resilient enemy and I'm not going to tell you it's not," the officer said. "It will be a constant battle and it will be for years."
The failure to broker meaningful talks with the Taliban underscores the fragility of the gains claimed during the surge of U.S. troops ordered by President Obama in 2009. The 30,000 extra troops won back territory held by the Taliban, but by nearly all estimates failed to deal a crippling blow.
Critics of the Obama administration say the U.S. also weakened its own hand by agreeing to the 2014 deadline for its own involvement in combat operations, voluntarily ceding the prize the Taliban has been seeking for over a decade. The Obama administration defends the deadline as crucial to persuading the Afghan government and military to assume full responsibility for the country, and politically necessary for Americans weary of what has already become the country's longest war.
Among U.S. commanding generals here, from Stanley A. McChrystal and David H. Petraeus to today's John R. Allen, it has been an oft-repeated mantra that the U.S. is not going to kill its way out of Afghanistan. They said that the Afghanistan war, like most insurgencies, could only end with a negotiation.
Now U.S. officials say they have reduced their goals further -- to patiently laying the groundwork for eventual peace talks after they leave. U.S. officials say they hope the Taliban will find the Afghan army a more formidable adversary than they expect and be compelled, in the years after NATO withdraws, to come to terms with what they now dismiss as a "puppet" government.
The U.S. has not given up on talks before that time. It agreed last month to set up a committee with Pakistan that would vet potential new Taliban interlocutors, and the Obama administration is considering whether to revive a proposed prisoner swap with the insurgents that would, officials hope, reopen preliminary discussions that collapsed in March, current and former U.S. officials said.
With the end of this year's fighting season, the Taliban have weathered the biggest push the U.S.-led coalition is going to make against them. A third of all U.S. forces left by this month, and more of the 68,000 remaining may leave next year, with the goal that only a residual force of trainers and special operations troops will remain by the end of 2014.
Bringing Pakistan into the search for Taliban contacts is also an uncertain strategy, U.S. officials said. The details of the new vetting committee have yet to be worked out, and "if we are depending on Pakistan, it comes with an asterisk," one of the officials said. "We never know whether they will see it through."
The U.S. shift toward a more peripheral role in peace efforts represents another retreat from Washington's once broad designs for Afghanistan, where the surge, along with a sharp escalation of nighttime raids by special operations forces against Taliban field commanders, were partly aimed at forcing the Taliban into negotiations, making a Western withdrawal more feasible.
For a brief moment, the strategy appeared to be working: Preliminary talks, painstakingly set up throughout 2011, opened early this year in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.
The effort fell apart when the Obama administration, faced with bipartisan opposition in Washington, could not make good on a proposed prisoner swap, in which five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would have been exchanged for the sole U.S. soldier held by the insurgents, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
In Washington, "the tone of the whole discussion has shifted to a less U.S.-led approach and toward a more Afghan-led approach, but one that will be over a longer term," said Shamila N. Chaudhary, an analyst at the Eurasia Group who served as the director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the National Security Council.
The Americans still hope to play a behind-the-scenes role, she said. But what shape that would take is "not clear. It's too far in the future," Chaudhary added.