The Taliban represents a broad constituency from hard-core militants to local warlords who feel aggrieved by losing political power in recent years. Buying-off, or negotiating with, or inducting into the political mainstream disgruntled local power-brokers is plausible. Trying the same with more-extreme militants or those with particular grudges against the Western troops is less so.
All evidence thus far suggests that negotiations are planned with those 'moderate Taliban' who are amenable to being bought off (or at least temporarily rented). For now, no one is talking about negotiations with the Taliban high command. It is hard to see at this point that Mullah Omar would vow to expel foreign fighters from Afghanistan. And even if some form of cease-fire were agreed upon, it is hard to see how the West could justify the subsequent treatment of women as a success.
So the negotiations are likely to be with local Taliban in the hope that they will extend the remit of the government. The recent elections should give some idea of how that would work. Hamid Karzai made deals with a host of warlords in the hope they would deliver votes. It appears they preferred to stuff ballot boxes. Political power structures in Afghanistan, whether traditional or newly created, seem over-rated.
The war in Afghanistan will be deemed a success if the Afghan government garners popular support from the bulk of Afghans that do not want the Taliban to return. That requires an effective government that wants to deliver for its population.
Western military support will only be effective if this is in place. If this support is misdirected, and civilians are killed, another extended family will turn against the government, and the West. Resolving these issues should be the priority. Talk of negotiations will only alienate those Afghans who are brave enough to back the government.
This article first appeared in the New York Times on 1 September 2009.