A headline for a recent McClatchy news story suggests that the decision of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah not to contest the second round of the Afghan presidential election will have a major impact on whether the Afghan government is perceived as legitimate: “Challenger’s pullout leaves Afghan government of dubious legitimacy.”

But for those who want to end the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, whether the supporters of Abdullah can be convinced that the Afghan government is legitimate isn’t as important as whether those Afghans currently participating in and supporting insurgency can be persuaded that the Afghan government is legitimate. Political negotiations that result in an Afghan government more widely accepted by those now supporting insurgency is the development most likely to end the war and bring about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Elections in Iraq following the United States invasion didn’t result in a government that was widely perceived as legitimate. Elections in Iraq didn’t forestall, end, or curtail violent conflict; indeed, elections in Iraq contributed to violent conflict. Neither did a change in government officials following elections in Iraq forestall, end, or curtail violent conflict.

The action taken by the United States that contributed most to reducing violent conflict in Iraq, and created the conditions in which a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was agreed with the Iraqi government, was the initiation and support of political negotiations with a large part of the Sunni Arab insurgency and with a large part of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia.

Hoh’s Concerns

In his letter of resignation in protest of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh wrote:

The Pashtun insurgency is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.

If these grievances are driving the Pashtun insurgency, it isn’t likely that bringing in a few new officials representing constituencies already represented in the government or arresting a few officials for corruption – two reforms being currently discussed — will end or significantly reduce the insurgency. The problems of the current government, from the point of view of those now supporting insurgency, are far more fundamental.

Writing in The New York Times Magazine on August 9 of this year, Elizabeth Rubin noted:

With the overthrow of the Taliban, the ethnic Tajiks who made up the bulk of the Northern Alliance considered themselves the victors. At the Bonn Conference held in Germany in December 2001 to create the future Afghan government, the Northern Alliance Tajiks demanded and got the most important ministries.

In an op-ed a week later, Selig Harrison, a former Washington Post bureau chief in South Asia, wrote that this sectarian character of the political configuration of the Afghan government that was formed in 2001 persists to the present day:

One of the basic reasons many Pashtuns support the Taliban insurgency is that their historic rivals, ethnic Tajiks, hold most of the key levers of power in the government. Tajiks…largely control the armed forces and the intelligence and secret police agencies that loom over the daily lives of the Pashtuns.

If the United States wants to end or substantially reduce Afghanistan’s insurgencies, it must address these concerns. And it’s extremely unlikely that these concerns will be addressed as a result of the U.S. merely threatening the Karzai government, since the political composition of the Karzai government is at the root of the problem. As long as the framework of the United States is, “reform the Afghan government to more successfully prosecute the war,” the pressures from within the Karzai camp against reform are likely to be more powerful than U.S. pressure for reform.

For these concerns to be effectively addressed, Pashtun supporters of insurgency have to be at the negotiating table. Is that prospect realistic? The history of the last year suggests that it’s more realistic than the present policy as a way to end the war.

No Negotiations

In March, Carlotta Gall reported in The New York Times that preliminary discussions between Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders were already underway, and that Afghan officials said they could be developed into formal talks with the support of the United States. But the United States withheld its support, on the grounds that the time wasn’t ripe for negotiations, since the Taliban were too strong.

In May, Dexter Filkins reported in the Times that: Taliban leaders were talking with Afghan intermediaries about a peace agreement that would include a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. But Filkins noted that “American commanders seem determined to inflict greater pain on the Taliban first, to push them into negotiations and extract better terms.”

On the eve of the Afghan presidential election in August, Gall reported in the Times that the major presidential candidates agreed that the next government should try to end the war through negotiations. She noted that the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, was urging “a wide-reaching political solution” and improving relations with Pakistan. Eide argued that the groundwork for such a process needed to be laid in the winter, to forestall another season of fighting in the spring.

Looking back to March, it appears that the United States has ignored each opportunity to explore a political settlement in favor of military escalation. And Obama administration officials have justified escalation as a tool that will supposedly improve the U.S. position in future negotiations. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, escalation has just brought more death and destruction.

Fork in the Road

Now, we are once again at a fork in the road, as Obama considers General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops. Some of Obama’s top advisers have argued that further escalation could close off opportunities for a political solution.

We now have a unique opportunity to consider Kai Eide’s proposal for a broad reconciliation process that addresses the roots of the insurgencies, because it isn’t clear that the Obama administration can put 40,000 troops in Afghanistan by the spring fighting season, even if it wants to. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have asked Obama not to approve any plan to send more troops to Afghanistan that would require troops to spend less than 12 months in the U.S. between deployments. If Obama agrees to this condition, that would prevent 40,000 new troops from being deployed in the spring.

In addition, the number of troops available to be sent to Afghanistan in the next year depends on the pace of drawdown from Iraq. An evaluation of the drawdown from Iraq is supposed to take place 30-60 days after the Iraqi election on January 16 — an election that’s likely to be delayed. So in the middle of February at the earliest — probably later — we will know what the pace of drawdown from Iraq will be.

The broad political reconciliation process that Eide has advocated needs to be led by Afghans, but it can’t succeed without the active support of the United States, both because any feasible agreement is almost sure to include U.S. concessions like a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and because Karzai government is unlikely to make the political concessions necessary for an effective agreement if it perceives that it will have U.S. support if it does not make such concessions.

Political negotiations aren’t going to result in an immediate agreement. If we want to stop another season of fighting, and put the U.S. on course to withdraw its troops, we should start meaningful negotiations now.

, Robert Naiman is the policy director at Just Foreign Policy.