The Pentagon has in 2010-11 sought to portray the Afghan war as moving in the right direction for the United States, and to interpret regular incidents of violence as symptoms of a Taliban insurgency either in retreat or flailing wildly. The military “surge” of United States troops into southern Afghanistan in 2010 fuelled a narrative that focused on the restoration of stability to Helmand and Kandahar provinces. In addition, the widespread use of night-raids and armed-drone attacks were killing or detaining many local Taliban commanders (see "America vs al-Qaida", 11 November 2010).
This combination of extra deployments and intensive tactics was making such a difference, it was argued, that the next “fighting season” - from May 2011, as the opium-poppy harvest is gathered - would be conducted at a much lower pitch than its predecessors.
The argument that the decade-long war was at last moving in the right direction for the United States has been sustained even in the face of consistent setbacks (see “Afghanistan: echoes of Vietnam”, 10 February 2011. Moreover, the deeper evidence of conditions across much of the Afghanistan - such as indications of Taliban structures of authority embedded in rural areas - always cast doubt on the Pentagon’s optimism (see CJ Chivers, “In Eastern Afghanistan, at War With the Taliban's Shadowy Rule”, New York Times, 6 February 2011).
Now, in late April 2011, the narrative has received a series of especially heavy blows:
* Around midnight on 24 April, a lengthy and carefully organised prison-break from a “high-security” jail in Kandahar city saw over 480 Taliban - including a number of local commanders - released. What compounded the embarrassment for the authorities - or at least of those not actually complicit in the mass escape - is that the prison had recently been rebuilt following an earlier escape
* On 25 April, a Taliban unit penetrated the Afghan defence ministry in Kabul, killing two soldiers and wounding seven
* On 27 April, at Bagram air-base near Kabul, an Afghan pilot killed eight American soldiers and an American civilian contractor (see Tom A Peter, “Kabul airport shooting raises questions about readiness, loyalty of Afghan soldiers”, Christian Science Monitor, 27 April 2011)
The Kandahar escape was a skilful operation, whose degree of coordination suggests an element of hyperbole in the image of a Taliban in retreat. The Bagram assault is a reminder of the difficulties in establishing relationships of trust between coalition and Afghan security forces. Indeed, it was the seventh occasion in the first four months of 2011 alone that Afghan security-force personnel (or insurgents in their guise) have killed coalition soldiers.
The electoral lock
It is against this contested background that several reports (often from reliable sources) indicate that Barack Obama’s administration has assigned people seriously to engage in talks with Taliban contacts (see Ahmed Rashid, “How US intends to end war with Taliban”, Financial Times, 18 April 2011).
In these shadowy conversations, two factors play a vital role. The first is the electoral cycle in the United States, especially the onset of the presidential-election campaign towards 2012 (see Godfrey Hodgson, "America's political suspense", 21 April 2011). Obama intends to win re-election, and needs as part of the effort to present himself as the national leader that extricated most of the US troops from an increasingly unpopular war. This makes it essential to use the period until November 2011 to prepare the ground.
It seems that the president's attitude has turned to an acceptance that the Taliban and other insurgents will have a substantial role in post-war Afghan governance, qualified by a refusal of any al-Qaida presence in the country (see Mariano Aguirre, “Barack Obama and Afghanistan: a closer look”, 8 April 2009).
The second factor is Pakistan. Many in the Pakistani elite would back an agreement in Afghanistan that would allow Islamabad to retain influence in the country, in part through their links with the Taliban (see Alissa J Rubin, “Pakistan Urged Afghanistan to Distance Itself From the West, Officials Say”, New York Times, 27 April 2011). Amid a fluid situation in Pakistan there is a possibility that key military and political leaders may back Imran Khan - a high-level sporting hero and politician - for the prime ministership (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Imran Khan in Taliban peace spotlight”, Asia Times, 20 April 2011).
The regional key
But more than the United States and Pakistan have an interest in shaping Afghanistan’s future. The major regional players directly bordering Afghanistan - Pakistan, China and Iran - might in principle support a settlement as long as their main concerns are addressed.
Iran seeks to maintain and expand its influence in northwest Afghanistan and to see the Taliban restricted to the country’s south and east; China’s focus is on Afghanistan’s considerable mineral wealth (see “Afghanistan, and the world’s resource war”, 17 June 2010); Russia’s major worry is that the United States might retain two large Afghan bases well beyond 2014.
A positive alignment of interests and diplomacy here may create the beginning of a real prospect of concluding the decade-long war. Even Russia may contribute to an endgame if there are sufficient concessions from Washington, though much will depend here on the size of those bases in any situation of stable post-war governance in Kabul.
Here, however, the position of the remaining big regional player, India, will be crucial (see Jyoti Thottam, "Afghanistan: India's Uncertain Road", Time, 10 April 2011). New Delhi has been assiduous since the mid-2000s in engaging in a wide range of development projects in Afghanistan and building contacts there (see Kanchan Lakshman, “India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure”, 11 July 2008). Its regional calculations include long-term competition with China and persistent fear of irregular warfare from Pakistan (accentuated by the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, now embedded in the Indian psyche much as 9/11 is in America's).
It has long been conventional wisdom that the road to ending the Afghanistan war passes through Islamabad. Now, Barack Obama's administration is committed to a negotiated settlement, and reshuffling its leading personnel as part of that effort. In this emerging period, India is going to become even more important.