Tough task of engaging the Afghan Taliban

Including the Taliban in the political process may be repulsive to some, but the alternative - to eliminate them - is morally and practically impossible.

Every war begins with the same grand statements: there can be no compromise with the enemy, and only absolute capitulation is acceptable. Later, after much blood and treasure has been spent, the realities dawn on leaders and a more pragmatic policy emerges that takes into account the society's fabric. This happened in Iraq, where the US pledged to crush the insurgency and the insurgency vowed to eject the occupiers. The US eventually realised that the insurgency was a collection of local movements with local roots and domestic legitimacy, and tensions within the insurgency about means and goals led some groups to turn against allies. This, more than any new military strategy or fancy weaponry, helped to turned the tide.

The same could happen in Afghanistan. The initial US policy was to squarely defeat the Taliban, but this language has been toned down. The White House now wants to "reverse the Taliban's momentum", which opens the way for a more nuanced strategy that includes a conditional opening to the Taliban alongside bolstering the central government and building up its security forces. Consider these recent statements by senior US officials. The defence secretary, Robert Gates, says: "The Taliban, we recognise, are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point." His top commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, goes further: "I believe that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome. And it's the right outcome. I think that the re-integration of fighters can take a lot of the energy out of the current levels of the insurgency. Then I think you open up the option, the possibility, for everybody to look at what's the right combination of participation in the government here."

The inclusion of disarmed Taliban elements in the political process may be repulsive to some, but the alternative - to eliminate them, their ideology and their constituency - is morally and practically impossible. The real question is what mix of positive and negative incentives can achieve the goal of integrating them in a legitimate process that produces a sustainable government. The Afghan authorities have already announced what they expect from Taliban willing to switch sides: a renouncement of violence, a recognition of the Afghan constitution and a commitment to play by democratic rules. Already the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is lobbying the UN to remove some Taliban names from its terrorist list as a gesture of goodwill. Other steps he is considering include integrating Taliban fighters into the Afghan military, providing protection to Taliban families willing to return to their country, and designing reinsertion programmes.

Taking advantage of faultlines in the nebulous Taliban movement will not be easy. Some leaders will resist any compromise if it implies their own demise. Others genuinely adhere to the most extreme agenda. But a strategy that squeezes the Taliban from all sides has genuine merit.