With the stage set for secret U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar, the White House strategy for a phased exit from war-ravaged Afghanistan is now couched in nice-sounding terms like “reconciliation” and “transition to 2014,” which hide more than they reveal. In seeking a Faustian bargain with the medieval Taliban, President Barack Obama risks repeating the very mistakes of U.S. policy that have come to haunt regional and international security.

Since coming to office, Obama has pursued an Afghan War strategy summed up in just four words: surge, bribe and run. The military mission has now entered the “run” part, or what euphemistically is being called the “transition to 2014.”

The central aim at present is to cut a deal with the Taliban — even if Afghanistan and the wider region pay a heavy price — so that the U.S. and its NATO partners exit the “Graveyard of Empires” without losing face. This effort to withdraw as part of a deal that avoids admitting defeat is being dressed up as “reconciliation,” with Qatar, Germany and Britain getting lead roles to help facilitate such a settlement with the Taliban.

Yet what stands out is how little the U.S. has learned from past mistakes. In some critical respects, it is actually beginning to repeat the past mistakes, whether by creating or funding new local militias in Afghanistan or striving to cut a deal with the Taliban. As in the covert war it waged against the nearly nine-year Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, so too in the current overt war, U.S. policy has been driven by short-term considerations, with little regard for the interests of friends in the region.

To be sure, any president must work to extricate his country from a protracted war. Obama is right to seek an end to the war. He, however, blundered by laying out his cards in public and emboldening the enemy.

Within weeks of assuming office, Obama publicly declared his intent to exit Afghanistan, before he even asked his team to work out a strategy. A troop surge that lasted up to 2010 was designed not to militarily rout the Taliban but to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength. Yet even before the surge began, its purpose was undercut by the exit plan. This was followed by a publicly unveiled troop drawdown, stretching from 2011 to 2014.

A withdrawing power that first announces a phased exit and then pursues deal-making with the enemy undermines its regional leverage. It speaks for itself that the sharp deterioration in U.S. ties with the Pakistani military has occurred after the drawdown timetable was unveiled. The phased exit has encouraged the Pakistani generals to play hardball. Worse, there is still no clear U.S. strategy on how to ensure that the endgame does not undermine the interests of the free world or further destabilize the region.

Although Afghanistan historically was designed as a buffer state, it no longer separates empires and conflicts. Rather, it is the center of not one but multiple conflicts. Given its major ethnic and political divides, genuine national reconciliation is imperative. However, instead of opening parallel negotiating tracks with all key actors, including the National Front (formerly Northern Alliance), with the aim of eventually bringing them together at the same table, the Obama team is pursuing a single-track approach focused on the Taliban.
Qatar has been chosen as the seat of U.S.-Taliban negotiations so as to keep the still-skeptical Afghan government at arm’s length (despite the pretense of “Afghan-led” talks) and to insulate the Taliban negotiators from Pakistani and Saudi pressures. Meanwhile, even as a civil-military showdown in Pakistan compounds Washington’s regional challenges, the new U.S. containment push against Iran threatens to inject greater turbulence into next-door Afghanistan.

Iran’s nuclear program is a factor behind the new containment drive. But a bigger factor is the intent not to allow Iran to be the main beneficiary of the end of U.S. military operations in Iraq and the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan. Yet, without getting Iran on board, building a stable Iraq or Afghanistan will be difficult.

In truth, U.S. policy is coming full circle again on the Pakistan-fathered Taliban, in whose birth the CIA had played midwife. The Clinton administration acquiesced in the Taliban’s ascension to power in 1996 and turned a blind eye as that thuggish militia, in league with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, fostered narco-terrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism. With 9/11, however, the chickens came home to roost. In declaring war on the Taliban, U.S. policy came full circle.

Now, U.S. policy, with its frantic search for a deal with the Taliban, is coming another full circle. The Qatar-based negotiations indeed highlight why the U.S. political leadership has deliberately refrained from decapitating the Taliban. The U.S. military has had ample opportunities (and still has) to eliminate the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, often called the Quetta Shura because it relocated to Quetta city in Pakistan.

Yet, tellingly, the U.S. has not carried out a single drone, air or ground strike against the shura. All the U.S. strikes have occurred farther north in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region, although the leadership of the Afghan Taliban or its allied groups like the Haqqani network and the Hekmatyar band is not holed up there.

When history is written, the legacy of the NATO war in Afghanistan will mirror the legacy of the U.S. occupation of Iraq — to leave an ethnically fractured nation. Just as Iraq today stands ethnically partitioned in a de facto sense, it will be difficult to establish a government in Kabul post-2014 whose writ runs across Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. An end to NATO combat operations will not mean the end of the war, because the enemy will target Western interests wherever they may be. The fond U.S. hope to regionally contain terrorism promises to keep the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt as a festering threat to regional and global security. This is a chilling message for the country that has borne the brunt of the rise of international terrorism — India.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, among others, of the “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins, 2010).