When do US-Taliban Endgame Talks Begin?

In February, a few days after launching "Operation Moshtarak – Together" in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, the US, Britain and the Kabul government announced it had ended in a crushing victory over Taliban forces and the capture of the key town of Marjah.
Like other NATO victories in Afghanistan, this one too rested mostly on the Taliban's tactic of non-resistance to incoming forces, melting into the civilian population and then turning to a war of terror, ambush and harassment. Nevertheless, US spokespeople called the Helmand operation the successful prologue to the far more ambitious battle for Kandahar, capital of southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's home base and the first real test of President Barack Obama's New Afghanistan Strategy.
Three months have gone by since Operation Moshtarak and it has become one of Afghanistan's forgotten engagements. Infrequent reports describe thousands of US marines and aid workers engaged in the third stage of Obama's Take, Hold and Build strategy for Afghanistan, handing out seeds and fertilizers for cash crops through the Marjah Accelerated Agricultural Transition program – MAAT, in the hope weaning local farmers away from opium cultivation.
The Taliban is not interfering in the US aid program because local Afghans, while accepting American offerings of money, seeds, fertilizers and medical assistance, retain their ties with the insurgents to whom they remain loyal. And Taliban's campaign of harassment keeps US troops tied down to Forward Operating Base Marjah, their only island of control in the region.

Taliban prepares to carry its Marjah tactics to Kandahar

US commanders categorize the results of the Marjah operation as mixed. The local Taliban commanders have a slightly different take on it. They maintain that they have come out of this operation strengthened because they proved to the local populace that the fearsome US war machine preferred co-existence with them to a fight to the finish.
Taliban leaders don't object to such US statements as the one by Maj. David Fennel, the Civil Affairs team leader attached to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, who said, "We want the Afghan people to understand that we're trying to help them transition even though we're interfering with the opium market."
Or the comment from First Lieut. Michael Thatcher, platoon commander for 81-mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company 1/6, who described relations with the local population as the "Second Front."
On the contrary, local Taliban commanders feel they control the region and its main roads and they are therefore holding American forces to siege, rather than the other way round, and it is they who hold the option of whether or not to go back to combat – not the Americans.
Taliban's reading of the Marjah engagement has infected Kandahar.
As US forces stream into the new arena to prepare for its conquest, a war of attrition has developed, with American special operations units raiding the Taliban strongholds scattered around the town so as to soften them up ahead of the offensive, while Taliban hits back by bombing US troop convoys heading into the arena.
Taliban operatives are also following their custom of blending into the local population, this time in villages around the American military bases. They are holding ready to keep the roads to and from those bases under heavy fire and so making them impassable to military traffic.

One-way exit for US troops: Talks with Taliban

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources predict that the US-led Kandahar offensive will end much like the Marjah operation. Outside their bases, US troops will have very little control of the countryside, which the Taliban will dominate from safe civilian cover.
When he unveiled his Afghan surge policy last December, President Obama defined its three main objectives as being to weaken the Taliban so that it would no longer pose a direct military threat to central government in Kabul; to strengthen Afghan national military and police forces; and to start withdrawing American forces by the summer of 2011.
But the battle for Marjah and the lead-in to Operation Kandhahar have placed two out of the three objectives out of reach.
The insurgents, rather than being weakened, have come out the new US policy strengthened. New Pentagon figures reveal that "violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87 percent increase from February 2009 to March 2010.
The report says: "Expanded violence is viewed as an insurgent victory…"
The poor showing made by the Afghan units in the Marjah battle bodes ill for the second Obama objective. Although made up of elite troops, armed with the finest US weapons and best training, these Afghan soldiers refused to risk taking the Taliban on in direct combat, leaving the fighting to their American and British comrades-at-arms.
The military standoff between US-led forces and the insurgents leaves Washington only one exit door for a troop pullout to get started in 2011: direct or indirect negotiations with the Taliban on the terms of retreat.
Although official Obama administration spokesmen are still talking about a decisive American operation in Kabul, there are few such illusions in the presidential palace in Kandahar or in decision-making circles in Islamabad and New Delhi, whereas at Taliban headquarters in Pakistan, preparations are already under way to get US-Taliban negotiations started.
The only question now is not if they will go ahead, but when.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai may be given the date and venue for these talks when he visits the White House next month.

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