Obama's Moment in Afghanistan

Cooperating through 2015.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Could more U.S. troops, given more time, finally defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan? It would be folly to think so, after more than 13 years of fighting. On the other hand, a full withdrawal of U.S. soldiers might lead the still-shaky Afghan army to collapse during the coming fighting season. This is one reason for the U.S. to slow its troop withdrawal, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has requested

Another is that Pakistan, for the first time and with China's backing, seems willing to nudge the Taliban toward the negotiating table. U.S. President Barack Obama is right to take advantage of the moment.

QuickTake Leaving Afghanistan

Obama has agreed to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of this year -- when they were originally scheduled to halve in number. This should demonstrate to the Taliban that they can expect neither to triumph in the field nor to wait out the Americans. 

At the same time, to encourage Pakistan's new willingness to help, the U.S. deployment needs an expiration date. If the Pakistani military really has told Taliban leaders that they have to negotiate with Kabul or else lose the havens they enjoy on the Pakistan side of the border, that drastically curtails the militants’ options. Any hint that the U.S. intends to stay indefinitely -- an all-too-common idea in the region -- would inflame Pakistani hardliners and quite possibly prompt a reversal of the policy. 

At least as important, the prospect of an endless U.S. presence would alienate China, which has begun using its influence to push for peace. The world has plenty of reason to doubt Pakistan’s commitment, not to mention its capacity to boss around Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his top lieutenants. But pressure from Beijing can help prevent the Pakistanis from backsliding. 

The Obama administration should nurture China's interest by coordinating U.S. development plans in Afghanistan with China’s ambitious proposal for a Silk Road Economic Belt, and by seeking to cooperate with rather than undermine the new Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. 

To encourage everyone's cooperation, Obama should agree to pull out U.S. troops sooner than planned if a negotiated settlement can be reached. He could strengthen Ghani’s hand by releasing the few remaining Afghan detainees at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into Afghan custody. 

For his part, Ghani needs to do more to rally domestic support for an eventual settlement with the Taliban. He could begin by more fully integrating into his administration rivals from the camp of Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah -- the man Ghani narrowly defeated in September's election. Peace in Afghanistan depends on political stability, and the two factions need to agree on how and when to hold parliamentary elections, technically due by the end of May.

None of this should give rise to false hopes. If Taliban leaders do choose to negotiate, it’s entirely possible that parts of their movement will split off and continue fighting, perhaps under the banner of Islamic State. But a renewed U.S. troop commitment at least adds to the range of forces -- stronger than any in recent memory -- now pushing the Taliban toward a settlement.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.