Will Obama Sign Off On New Afghan Strategy? President-elect Barack Obama will have to grapple with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will have to decide whether to negotiate with members of the Taliban as a way of stemming the violence in Afghanistan. The idea is supported by the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, who used a similar tactic as part of a broader strategy in Iraq.

Will Obama Sign Off On New Afghan Strategy?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96805474/96805455" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Despite the jubilation, it is a tough time to be president. When Barack Obama takes office on January 20, he'll face two major wars. While Iraq has stabilized in the last year, Afghanistan is becoming more violent. And there's an idea gaining currency that once seemed out of the question: negotiating with the Taliban. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Barack Obama's ascendancy to commander in chief comes at a time when there is enormous renewed interest and activity surrounding the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. It's a favorite topic at Washington's think tanks. It was one of the first destinations for General David Petraeus, the new chief of Central Command. And there are several administrative and military reviews under way to devise a new strategy for Afghanistan. Behind all this is the growing realization that the war cannot be won by military means alone, says George Friedman with Stratfor, a global intelligence company.

Dr. GEORGE FRIEDMAN (CEO, Stratfor): The problem the United States has is: one, we cannot win a war in Afghanistan; two, we can't stay there indefinitely; and three, therefore we have to do something else. The something else always is negotiation.

NORTHAM: What was unthinkable just a short time ago - negotiating with the Taliban and other Islamist groups - is now being openly discussed.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, U.S. Central Command): I do think you have to talk to enemies.

NORTHAM: General David Petraeus is credited with bringing stability to Iraq, in part by opening a dialogue with Sunni tribal leaders and others who had initially fought the U.S. occupation. He sees this tactic as part of a broader strategy for success in Afghanistan.

General PETRAEUS: As you are trying to resolve these kinds of situations, clearly you want to try to reconcile with as many as is possible while then identifying those who truly are irreconcilable.

NORTHAM: For the past five years, the Afghan government has been trying to reach out to moderate or low-level members of the Taliban, with limited success. Said Jawad is Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S.

Ambassador SAID JAWAD (Afghanistan's Ambassador to the U.S.): The problem is that the Taliban are not a monolithic group. They are different individuals. They are different groups. They are criminals. They are drug traffickers. Unfortunately, there is a lot more talk about talking with Taliban than substance into that talk.

NORTHAM: And Ambassador Jawad says it's too early to say if key Taliban leaders, such as Mullah Omar, would be invited to the negotiating table.

Ambassador JAWAD: These individuals have the blood of many Afghans, possibly many human beings all over the world, in their hands. There's a lot of issues that need to be worked out between, first, the Afghans themselves. It will be a long-term, time-consuming, difficult process.

NORTHAM: The U.S. has so far ruled out talking with the likes of Mullah Omar. Brian Williams, a professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts, says it's unlikely hardcore Taliban leaders are even interested in negotiating, especially with the U.S.

Dr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Associate Professor of Islamic History, University of Massachusetts): There's still going to be diehard elements who are all currently in Pakistan who will never stop jihad. You know, they're maximalist. They see this jihad in Manichean black-and-white terms. And they want to fight until the last foreigner is removed from Afghan soil.

NORTHAM: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has enlisted Saudi Arabia's help to sponsor and encourage talks between his representatives and people close to the Taliban. Among them is Abdullah Anas, an Algerian national who first went to Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces in the 1980s. Anas says he believes there's a certain battle fatigue which bodes well for reconciliation.

Mr. ABDULLAH ANAS (Algerian Scholar): The last 30 years of the bad experience Afghanistan and its nation have faced shows that there's no way to secure Afghanistan except to open a dialogue, to open a political process.

NORTHAM: Anas believes the time is ripe for negotiations. Massachusetts University Professor Williams disagrees.

Dr. WILLIAMS: I think the Taliban, they smell blood. And whole provinces, you know, whole swathes of territory have been falling in the south and the east to the Taliban. So they sense that momentum is on their side. And they see that these efforts to reach out to them are perhaps a sign of weakness.

NORTHAM: Williams says the way the war is going right now, this may not be the time for negotiations with the Taliban. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.