I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Back in the summer of 2007, there was a debate in the Democratic presidential primaries over whether or not the United States ought to negotiate without preconditions with our enemies. Senator Obama said he would meet with Iranian president Ahmadinejad, among others, and Senator Clinton replied that this was naive, that it would be used for propaganda purposes, and so on.

Obama eventually won out, but the criticism of his position continued into the 2008 general election. The McCain campaign doubled down on the Bush policy of negotiations as a “reward”, and they relentlessly attacked Obama as weak on national defense, cozying up with dictators – you remember the commercials.

Despite all that, candidate Obama held firm in his position that the US should negotiate with its enemies. And not just dictators and foreign leaders, mind you, but even militant groups like the Taliban. Here Obama explains his rationale to NBC’s Brian Williams:

So far, so good. He uses some really unhelpful language (what the heck is a “moderate Taliban”?) but he admits that the process will not be easy or quick. . . .

Fast forward a year or so to late 2009, candidate Obama is now President Obama, and we’re hearing whispers out of Afghanistan that the Taliban and Hamid Karzai have begun very quiet, very preliminary discussions. Nothing really exciting, just an intermediary or two meeting secretly in Pakistan, the UAE, and elsewhere. President Obama orders a massive military escalation in order to “break Taliban momentum” (the same Taliban who were at the time negotiationg an end to hostilities), and General McChrystal (and now Petraeus) instituted his ultimately disastrous counter-insurgency campaign in the south and east of the country. AFPS reported at the time:

The 30,000 additional troops President Barack Obama is sending to Afghanistan will focus on reversing the Taliban’s momentum, a senior Defense Department official said last night during a “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable following the president’s announcement of his new strategy.

“What we are sending into Afghanistan by the end of next summer will be more troops, more quickly than any other proposal before the president,” said David S. Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. “What we are doing here is we are putting in the hands of General McChrystal more troops sooner in order to have the impact on the momentum of the Taliban.” Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal commands U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.

It wasn’t the smartest response to an offer of negotiations from the other side, but the generals insisted that the US had to inflict some kind of damage on the Taliban, “bleed them” a little, in order to properly position ourselves for the negotiation process. Pakistani and US intelligence agencies also began furiously arresting, assassinating, or coercing various high-ranking Taliban leaders, the capture of Mullah Baradar being the most high profile of these actions, all in an effort to rig the negotiations.

What role will the US play in negotiations? Will Pakistan have a seat at the table? Will the Taliban actually talk? The answers to these questions came, we’re told, from the escalation of both the overt and covert wars against Taliban militants. So Pakistan and the US killed, arrested, and bribed their way into a seat at the negotiating table with Karzai and the Taliban. It’s counter intuitive, if not insane, but nevertheless we’re still on the right track toward negotiations.

Obama said it wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t – a lot of American and Afghan blood was spilled in order to “break the momentum” and get a seat at the table. And it certainly wasn’t quick, these talks have been in the works for well over a year now. So, how did it go?

Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, isn’t having any of it.

All hopes of a breakthrough between the Afghan Taliban and the Karzai administration came to an end when Mulla Umar refused 35,000 government jobs for his fighters. Top level US, Afghan, Saudi and Pakistani officials have claimed that all efforts to organise the first-ever direct talks between Taliban and the Karzai administration in Saudi Arabia after Haj have failed and the Taliban have refused to send any delegation to Jeddah.

President Hamid Karzai had established a 70-member peace council two months ago for negotiating with Taliban. This council had, at least, 12 people who were part of the Taliban government from 1996 to 2001. Taliban Supreme leader Mulla Umar refused to listen to his former associates, who offered 35,000 jobs to the Taliban fighters on behalf of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

Damn, what’s the problem? Is it because Omar isn’t “moderate” enough? Is it because he wants to engage in “violent, anti-Western” activities that Obama warned about?

Nope. Turns out, it’s all that “momentum breaking” we’re doing

In a statement issued today on the group’s website, Voice of Jihad, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s “leader of the faithful,” denied the existence of negotiations and implored Afghans to continue fighting. Omar, who is thought to be based in either Karachi or Quetta in Pakistan, also reiterated that the Taliban would not talk to the Karzai government until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan. [...]

“It is because of this pressure that the enemy has resorted to spreading the misleading rumors of peace talks,” Omar said. “Thus, they want to reduce the military pressure which is being exerted on them.” In addition, Omar claimed that the Taliban have blunted US-led assaults in and around Kandahar city and in Marjah in Helmand province.

It’s the occupation, stupid! The central Taliban leadership are not going to negotiate until foreign troops begin their withdrawal.

And this is not a case of Omar being inflexible, he has quieted his other preconditions. In times past, the Taliban demanded that the Karzai government be dissolved, the constitution be scrapped, and the full re-institution of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Clearly they’re at least willing to recognize the Karzai government now, indeed they’ll even negotiate in good faith with it. But not with the US occupation still in effect.

So if the Taliban can compromise, why can’t we? Technically it isn’t even much of a compromise. Obama has stated that he wants to begin drawing down troops in July 2011. If he sticks to his word, then we might see some hope for negotiating an end to the conflict.

It doesn’t even have to be all at once, we don’t have to leave overnight. Thomas Ruttig explains:

And then, there are still a few preconditions of the Taleban in the way: that they want the troops out first – although that can and might be dealt with through ‘preliminary’ contacts, for example by re-working this into a timetable for withdrawal of troops and eventually bases.

Some (lower, less powerful) Taliban leaders have even offered such a compromise.

Afghanistan’s second biggest insurgent group has told the BBC it will agree to a ceasefire if US-led coalition forces stay in their main bases. [..]

“We have prepared a formula, and discussed it with the parliament and the foreign powers,” said [Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's son, Habib-ur-Rahman].

All Afghan groups agree that war is not the solution. But the Americans are sending 30,000 more troops in.

“They say ‘we will suppress our opponents and then evolve a new strategy for Afghanistan’.”

That’s not a bad plan. If the US military, their “opponents”, withdraw to their main bases (just as we did in Iraq) and proceed with our planned pullout in late 2011, then we can begin to negotiate some sort of reconciliation with Taliban factions in Afghanistan. If we don’t withdraw, they’ll simply continue to fight.

Some might argue that this would be a capitulation to the Taliban and a danger to US national security. Just like the primary debates over negotiations, they’d be wrong. The US should not have the occupation of Afghanistan as a precondition to talks with the Taliban, because occupying Afghanistan is not in the interests of the United States. We invaded in order to fight Al-Qa’eda, and that’s where we should be focused.

So far the Taliban have refused to sever ties with Al-Qa’eda. This is unacceptable, and it’s here that the US should draw a line in the sand on negotiations. No compromise should allow the existence of Al-Qa’eda in Afghanistan, which is an easy concession for the Taliban to make considering that our intelligence agencies say only a few dozen (if that many) AQ members remain in the country. First though, we must compromise on withdrawal, as the Taliban have done with negotiations with the Karzai government, and then we can move forward on the issues most important to each of the players.

I make this sound easier than it actually will be. Withdrawing our troops only gets us as far as good faith negotiations between the Taliban and Karzai’s government, and that certainly won’t be the end of the story.

More Ruttig:

But does Karzai really want to share power with a movement as strong as the Taleban that, additionally, is known for its anti-corruption attitude, coupled with rude methods to implement it?

Those we spoke to, including some ‘close to the [High Peace Council]’, do not put much hope into it. ‘Too big’ and composed of people ‘who do not get along with each other’ are amongst the more moderate comments. ‘Muftkhoran’ is another, less polite attribute which was used; indeed, Western funding commitments surely line the horizon in with silver in the eyes of some members.

But the most important argument heard in our meetings was that the idea behind the HPC is seen as trying to make the Taleban to ‘surrender’, i.e. to recognize the constitution, lay down their arms and ‘join’ the current Afghan government. That, most of them agreed, will never happen.

What role will the Taliban play in governing Afghanistan post-occupation? This is a question exclusively for Afghans, and it appears the answer is almost impossible to predict at this juncture. But the US has no national interest in owning Afghanistan, Al-Qa’eda is our only legitimate concern. We have to leave in order for the Afghan deliberations to proceed, and we need them to proceed in order to deal with Al-Qa’eda.

Obama campaigned on diplomacy without preconditions and he was delivered a broad mandate from the American people. Critics called him weak, but he stuck to his word and won the argument. Now the majority of Americans want an end to the war in Afghanistan, and the majority of Afghans want a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Critics will call Obama weak, but will he again stick to his word, negotiate with our enemies, and deliver the peace both countries so desperately want? That remains to be seen.

Obama must re-affirm his commitment to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, and in the meantime, the US should pull back to its bases in Kabul, Kandahar, and elsewhere. Until that happens, there will be zero progress on Taliban reconciliation efforts, and zero progress toward peace and stability in Afghanistan.