KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — With the surge of American troops over and the Taliban still a potent threat, American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal.
The once ambitious American plans for ending the war are now being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves in the years after most Western forces depart, and to ensure Pakistan is on board with any eventual settlement. Military and diplomatic officials here and in Washington said that despite attempts to engage directly with Taliban leaders this year, they now expect that any significant progress will come only after 2014, once the bulk of NATO troops have left.
“I don’t see it happening in the next couple years,” said a senior coalition officer. He and a number of other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the effort to open talks.
“It’s a very resilient enemy, and I’m not going to tell you it’s not,” the officer said. “It will be a constant battle, and it will be for years.”
The failure to broker meaningful talks with the Taliban underscores the fragility of the gains claimed during the surge of American troops ordered by President Obama in 2009. The 30,000 extra troops won back territory held by the Taliban, but by nearly all estimates failed to deal a crippling blow.
Critics of the Obama administration say the United States also weakened its own hand by agreeing to the 2014 deadline for its own involvement in combat operations, voluntarily ceding the prize the Taliban has been seeking for over a decade. The Obama administration defends the deadline as crucial to persuading the Afghan government and military to assume full responsibility for the country, and politically necessary for Americans weary of what has already become the country’s longest war.
Among America’s commanding generals here, from Stanley A. McChrystal and David H. Petraeus to today’s John R. Allen, it has been an oft-repeated mantra that the United States is not going to kill its way out of Afghanistan. They said that the Afghanistan war, like most insurgencies, could only end with a negotiation.
Now American officials say they have reduced their goals further — to patiently laying the groundwork for eventual peace talks after they leave. American officials say they hope that the Taliban will find the Afghan Army a more formidable adversary than they expect and be compelled, in the years after NATO withdraws, to come to terms with what they now dismiss as a “puppet” government.
The United States has not given up on talks before that time. It agreed last month to set up a committee with Pakistan that would vet potential new Taliban interlocutors, and the Obama administration is considering whether to revive a proposed prisoner swap with the insurgents that would, officials hope, reopen preliminary discussions that collapsed in March, current and former American officials said. Those are both seen as long-term efforts, however.
With the end of this year’s fighting season, the Taliban have weathered the biggest push the American-led coalition is going to make against them. A third of all American forces left by this month, and more of the 68,000 remaining may leave next year, with the goal that only a residual force of trainers and special operations troops will remain by the end of 2014.
Bringing Pakistan into the search for Taliban contacts is also an uncertain strategy, American officials said. The details of the new vetting committee have yet to be worked out, and “if we are depending on Pakistan, it comes with an asterisk,” one of the officials said. “We never know whether they will see it through.”
The American shift toward a more peripheral role in peace efforts represents another retreat from Washington’s once broad designs for Afghanistan, where the surge, along with a sharp escalation of nighttime raids by Special Operations Forces against Taliban field commanders, were partly aimed at forcing the Taliban into negotiations, making a Western withdrawal more feasible.
For a brief moment, the strategy appeared to be working: preliminary talks, painstakingly set up throughout 2011, opened early this year in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.
The effort fell apart when the Obama administration, faced with bipartisan opposition in Washington, could not make good on a proposed prisoner swap, in which five Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would have been exchanged for the sole American soldier held by the insurgents, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The trade was to be an initial confidence-building measure that would lead to more serious talks. If it is revived by the Obama administration, it would come after the presidential election, most likely leaving too little time to reach a deal before 2014, some current and former American officials said.
In Washington, “the tone of the whole discussion has shifted to a less U.S.-led approach and toward a more Afghan-led approach, but one that will be over a longer term,” said Shamila N. Chaudhary, a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group who served as the director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the National Security Council.
The Americans still hope to play a behind-the-scenes role, she said, but what shape that would take is “not clear.”
“It’s too far in the future,” Ms. Chaudhary added.
Divisions between the Taliban’s political wing and its military commanders represent another obstacle to serious talks. When the discussions first became public, “the military wing of the Taliban was very critical,” said Syed Muhammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban military commander who lives in Kabul.
They were angry to have learned of the talks through President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who was the first official to speak of them publicly. The Taliban have long derided Mr. Karzai as an American puppet, and they have steadfastly refused to talk with his government.
Then the Americans failed to make good on the prisoner swap, leaving the negotiators feeling betrayed, said Mr. Agha, who has played a tangential role in separate Afghan government efforts to open talks.
The senior coalition officer said the insurgents who supported the Qatar process “didn’t do a good I.O. campaign to sell it to their people.” I.O. is military jargon for Information Operations.
When the Karzai government brought it out into the open and the hard-liners balked, “we got they were backpedaling hard,” the officer said. Mr. Agha was adamant that talks were dead. “Peace is not a subject any longer,” he said.
But the Qataris remain willing to host the talks, and one of the Taliban negotiators still in Qatar said the talks could restart if the prisoner swap took place and the insurgents were allowed to open an office in Qatar, as the Americans had agreed to allow.
If those two steps “are implemented and practical steps are taken by the United States of America, talks will resume. There is no other obstruction,” said Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban negotiator, in an interview last month with Japan’s NHK World TV.
The prospects for direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are even murkier.
Mualavi Qalanmudin, a former Taliban minister who now sits on the High Peace Council, the Karzai administration’s separate peace effort, dismissed the notion that the Taliban will never talk to the Afghan government.
“They will continue saying that until the day they sit at the negotiating table,” said Mr. Qalanmudin, who once ran the Taliban’s notorious Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Mr. Agha, however, said he had been asked by the High Peace Council to carry proposals for direct talks to the Taliban and was rebuffed. “They said, ‘Reconcile with this corrupt government? Reconcile with this?’ I had no answer.”