To talk to the enemy or not to talk to them. The dilemma is as old as conflict itself. And, short of those occasions when war has been decided by outright victory, the answer in civil wars is nearly always compromise and concession as governments try to draw the more moderate sections of their enemy into a final settlement.
The case, therefore, for doing the same with the Taliban, as President Karzai and now the Americans wish, is a strong one. Whatever the latest surge of US forces can achieve, no one thinks that this is a war that can end in outright victory. Afghanistan is too fragmented as a country and the insurgency too deeply embedded to allow that, at least in the timeframe of 2014 that President Obama set last year when authorising the surge.
The strategy, as today's Conference on Afghanistan in London illustrates, has moved away from seeking a purely military solution to a much broader effort to build the civil as well as security capabilities of the Afghans themselves. Inducing the Taliban, through offers of aid and gestures such as removing some of their leaders from Nato's "black list", can be seen as a political part of that general move.
What it must not be is the excuse to water down the constitution and the rule of law which the Afghan government is committed to. As the human rights activist Guissou Jahangiri argues in these pages today, offering bribes to the Taliban and implicitly approving some of their leaders could easily be taken as a signal that President Karzai is ready to compromise some of these basic principles.
It shouldn't be. Of course pragmatism demands concessions. But the constitution guarantees basic rights, including those of women, and sets down certain fundamental principles of democracy and transparency of government. In London today Britain and its Nato allies must not forget these as they discuss supporting the government in Kabul with aid and arms.Reuse content