With the surge of American troops over and the Taliban still a potent threat, American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal.
The once ambitious American plans for ending the war are now being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves in the years after most Western forces depart, and to ensure Pakistan is on board with any eventual settlement. Military and diplomatic officials here and in Washington said that despite attempts to engage directly with Taliban leaders this year, they now expect that any significant progress will come only after 2014, once the bulk of NATO troops have left.
The failure to broker meaningful talks with the Taliban underscores the fragility of the gains claimed during the surge of American troops ordered by President Obama in 2009. The 30,000 extra troops won back territory held by the Taliban, but by nearly all estimates failed to deal a crippling blow.
Critics of the Obama administration say the United States also weakened its own hand by agreeing to the 2014 deadline for its own involvement in combat operations, voluntarily ceding the prize the Taliban has been seeking for over a decade. The Obama administration defends the deadline as crucial to persuading the Afghan government and military to assume full responsibility for the country, and politically necessary for Americans weary of what has already become the country’s longest war.
With the end of this year’s fighting season, the Taliban have weathered the biggest push the American-led coalition is going to make against them. A third of all American forces left by this month, and more of the 68,000 remaining may leave next year, with the goal that only a residual force of trainers and special operations troops will remain by the end of 2014.
Bringing Pakistan into the search for Taliban contacts is also an uncertain strategy, American officials said. The details of the new vetting committee have yet to be worked out, and “if we are depending on Pakistan, it comes with an asterisk,” one of the officials said. “We never know whether they will see it through.”