KABUL, Afghanistan — Some day the war in Afghanistan will end. If it's like most civil wars, it will end in negotiations — in this case, negotiations with the Taliban. And that's if we're lucky; the leading alternative to a negotiated settlement is a Taliban victory.
In fact, a negotiated settlement is what U.S. and NATO forces say they are fighting for, even though those negotiations will have to include a group most Afghans fear and Americans loathe.
"The outcome of this insurgency and counterinsurgency will be a political outcome, crafted by Afghans," Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American military commander, told me and other reporters at his Kabul headquarters recently. The goal of the current United States-led offensive, he said, is to strengthen the government and weaken the insurgents so that when negotiations come, they can produce "reasonable outcomes."
But how soon should negotiations begin and with whom? And what should we consider a "reasonable outcome"?
Those questions have touched off a debate not only among Afghans, but also between the United States and its European allies, and within the Obama administration itself.
Next month, Afghanistan's mercurial president, Hamid Karzai, plans to convene a national jirga, or assembly, that will bring together many of the country's contesting tribes and factions.
To Karzai's supporters, the peace jirga is an act of statesmanship, the beginning of a conversation that could nudge the Taliban and other insurgent groups onto a path toward national reconciliation. To Karzai's critics, it's a grandstand play designed to shore up the embattled president's shaky legitimacy and, worse, an unwelcome opportunity to make a quick, bad deal with the Taliban, a group unlikely to settle for a cameo role in governing Afghanistan.
Karzai, a member of the Pashtun ethnic group (like most of the Taliban and about 40 percent of the Afghan population), has called the insurgents "our disenchanted brothers" and has already talked with some of their leaders. (In a moment of anger at the United States last week, he even threatened to join the Taliban, although nobody in Kabul took that seriously.) The opposition in Kabul, dominated by non-Pashtun groups, scoffs at the idea that the Taliban's leaders are ready for reconciliation.
The issue divides the NATO alliance, too. Last month, Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, called for faster progress toward negotiations. "Now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort," he said.
The Obama administration is more skeptical. It would like to see Karzai broaden the government's base of support, especially if that would also mean some Taliban factions giving up the fight. But the administration also worries about a step into the unknown by an increasingly unpredictable leader.
Officially, the administration supports both Karzai and the peace jirga. "Whatever makes President Karzai more representative... strengthens him and helps us," McChrystal said. But some U.S. officials worry that Karzai will start negotiating too soon. They'd rather give Obama's surge of 30,000 additional troops a chance to move the balance of power in the government's favor this summer.
The skeptics also worry about what military planners call the "end state." What kind of country, they ask, will Afghanistan become?
The choices will depend in large part on the results of this summer's fighting. The best-case scenario is that the insurgency collapses and democracy blossoms. But that doesn't appear likely.
More plausible is a divided insurgency in which dissident Taliban factions and individuals agree to stop fighting. This scenario would be helped by a successful "reintegration" plan to offer employment and protection to defectors. So far, Karzai's efforts in that regard have been ineffective.
But at some point, negotiations will almost certainly have to include the main body of the Taliban, the brutal Islamists who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Otherwise, a European diplomat here warned, "the insurgency will break out again — because disenfranchised groups will feel they have no recourse... and they will seek support from extreme Islamist groups, which takes us back to al-Qaida."
That is going to mean hard choices and an imperfect ending. The Taliban's leaders don't believe in democracy. They don't accept Afghanistan's new constitution, especially its commitments to women's equality and universal education. They don't seek to share power; they want to take it back.
The Obama administration says it supports negotiations with any Afghan who abandons ties to al-Qaida, renounces violence and embraces the constitution. A weakened Taliban might give on some of those conditions, beginning with their disastrous alliance with al-Qaida. A cease-fire can be declared; the constitution can be amended. But some issues will be more difficult — including women's rights, which touches the core of the Taliban's fundamentalist theology.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, one of our proudest achievements was the liberation of the country's women from oppression (at least on paper). Already, the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan's countryside has forced many women back to traditional ways. It is a bitter irony that peace talks, if they come, will put these women at even greater risk.
"Women's rights don't matter all that much when people are being killed," argued a diplomat who has been urging negotiations.
No one wants to choose between human rights and human lives. But it's an ugly choice we may soon face.