A U.S. soldier with the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force… ((AP Photo/Allauddin Khan )
It takes a lot for the grinding conflict in Afghanistan to make bigger headlines than the Republican presidential contest, but recent news about that country has made even the Romney-Gingrich slugfest pale in importance. First, and most dramatically, a new National Intelligence Estimate suggests that little progress has been made over the last year in improving security or boosting the country's government or military capabilities. Just as disheartening was the release of a video that appears to show four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of slain Taliban fighters. Finally, word has emerged of a recent diplomatic shift that could lead to the renewal of peace talks with the Taliban.
The first two of these stories show why the third is so vital.
Most U.S. and international forces are slated to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. They will leave behind either a central government that's strong enough to sustain itself, or a weak and insular cabal beset on all sides by Islamist militants, leading to the high probability of a collapse that would negate the gains from 13 years of effort, billions of dollars in expenditures and more than 1,800 American lives. The best way to prevent the latter outcome is to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Taliban.
PHOTOS: A decade of conflict in Afghanistan
Those of a hawkish political bent will see the latest National Intelligence Estimate as evidence that the 2014 deadline for withdrawal is ill-advised and that our military commitment to Afghanistan should be open-ended. We see it as proof that no "surge," and no expenditure of blood and treasure, will succeed. With safe havens for insurgents in neighboring Pakistan and a deep-seated hostility to foreign intervention, Afghanistan is a terrible setting for a nation-building exercise. Stability is likely only if negotiators can forge a compromise in which Islamists would lay down their arms and swear off international terrorism in exchange for political influence within the new government.
The urination video, appearing on YouTube and TMZ, is another good argument for getting out. Every time evidence of bad behavior by U.S. forces emerges, it undermines Afghan civilian support for the U.S. mission, and the video is another step backward. It shows four men in Marine uniforms urinating on what appear to be the corpses of three men lying on sandy ground. "Have a great day, buddy," sneers one of the Marines. Anyone who thinks the U.S. is winning the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan should think again.
Last week, the Taliban announced plans to open a political office in Qatar, the opening move for a resumption in talks. Making a deal that grants concessions to the Taliban would be hard for the Obama administration during an election year, and negotiating with murderous zealots who sheltered Al Qaeda is more than a little distasteful, but few foreign policy decisions could be more crucial.