Afghanistan: Obama's groundhog day | Editorial

With no forceful leadership from the US president, the opportunity to bring the Taliban into a settlement is being lost

Barack Obama spoke to one audience on his surprise overnight trip to Afghanistan, but was, in fact, addressing four. To a war-weary American public, he was saying: "We are out." To Afghanistan it was: "But we are still in." The Taliban heard: "We are still on your case." And Pakistan was supposed to be calmed by: "Although we are still in, you don't have to worry about us." This was a mixed message if ever there was one.

After a war this long, the menu of optimistic claims about Afghanistan's current state of health is running low. Mr Obama chose the following: that he had broken the Taliban's momentum (but not their campaign); that US troops would be coming home (although in November there will still be nearly twice as many troops as there were when he assumed office in 2009). Lastly he claimed the tide had turned. A sixth-monthly Pentagon report only partially reflected their commander-in-chief's feelgood vision. While the Taliban had been unable to reclaim territory taken in Kandahar and Helmand provinces , and while the Afghan army had made strides, the Pentagon said that the Taliban remained a "resilient and determined" enemy that will attempt to regain lost ground and influence. Just hours after the president left, a car bomb blasted the gate of a compound east of Kabul where hundreds of UN staff and EU trainers live, followed by a prolonged gun battle between Afghan forces and the attackers. The light of a new day?

The signing of a strategic accord with Afghanistan may pave the diplomatic way for the forthcoming Nato conference in Chicago. It projects some level of stability into a relationship that is naturally fraught. But the underlying tensions remain. Afghan governance and corruption, seen as the pre-condition for progress in rural areas dominated by the Taliban, have not abated. One indicator is this year's poppy crop. A report which the UN in Afghanistan released recently with little fanfare predicted an increase in opium farming this year, sending Afghanistan back four or five years. While the Taliban take their cut, the lion's share of this income goes to Kabul's drug barons. The link between opium cultivation and security levels is explicit. As opium is a commodity that can keep for years, it's the biggest hedge fund Afghan farmers have. Production in Helmand, which grows more opium than the rest put together, has stabilised. You would expect it to, if it is flooded with US and British troops, but will that still be the case when they leave?

The other pillar of Mr Obama's exit strategy is a negotiated peace with a Taliban that cuts its links with al-Qaida. As Michael Semple, who has more experience than most of talking to the Taliban, has written, the issue is not whether Mullah Omar has links with senior al-Qaida. The US military response to 9/11 not only drove Taliban fighters and al-Qaida across the Pakistan border. It drove them strategically together. The issue now is how to reverse that. The default position of the Taliban is to keep on fighting, but among pragmatic factions there is war fatigue too. They, too, fear another civil war which is why they initiated the talks. Most of their people signed up for a war against foreigners, not another round of bloodletting between Afghans. Their war aims differ from al-Qaida's and yet little is being done to address this.

The Taliban have not been asked to declare their hand. The process of setting up a liaison office in Doha stalled over the Pentagon's refusal to release five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay. Mr Obama may calculate that this is one battle too many in a pre-election period. But any future US president, even if he be Mitt Romney, knows the price of kick-starting a new round of talks. If that happens, the Taliban could be forced to make real political and strategic decisions. The Pentagon currently has a lock on talks that the White House and the state department want to pursue. With no forceful leadership from the president, the opportunity to bring the Taliban into a settlement is being lost.


The GuardianTramp

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