Republicans have prevented the release of an American soldier held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for five Taliban detainees in Guantanamo, and thus are continuing to block the launch of diplomacy meant to bring about a political settlement of the stalemated conflict. Leaving the US client regime in Kabul without a negotiated settlement as US troops continue their departure creates a hazardous endgame, which could end with any of three “unthinkable” scenarios: an implosion of the Karzai regime, a renewed civil war, or a stalling of US withdrawals next year.
Where diplomacy languishes, wars gather flame. Since 2010, top Taliban negotiators have been waiting for talks with the US to begin in Qatar. The Taliban delegation includes the chief of staff to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s top leader. Meanwhile, American diplomacy has stagnated while drone killings have escalated. The US insists that the talks be led by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, whom the Taliban does not recognize as legitimate, at least not at this point, and who has an interest in delaying US troop withdrawals. The Obama administration complains that it is “politically difficult” to release the Guantanamo Taliban prisoners, even if it might spark talks. Since the Obama administration is already wallowing in Guantanamo-related controversies, the release of Taliban prisoners in exchange for an American soldier certainly would be a step it could defend.
Instead, the fighting continues and, to put it charitably, the US and NATO are not winning.
What did Secretary of State John Kerry say to Hamid Karzai in their recent meeting? Did Kerry push him to make a face-saving settlement with the Taliban? Or did Karzai win the right to stall further?
If not Kerry, what about Vice President Joe Biden who was so engaged in the Iraq endgame? Biden does not seem to be around this time. If White House officials are not prepared to enter the Doha talks process, who is? An envoy from NATO? Members of Congress? Citizen diplomats? The unfilled vacuum is dangerous.
Since the death of Richard Holbrooke, who was at least a realistic hawk, there has been no effective American catalyst for diplomacy. President Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal timeline runs through late 2014 – the same climactic period as the next Afghan and American congressional elections. Will the Obama administration risk entering 2014 without a credible platform to maximize Afghan peace and stability? No one seems to know.