With another week still to go, July has already become the deadliest month for international coalition forces since they launched the US-led military offensive in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The number has risen to 62, according to the iCasualties database, as a surge of US troops -- 31 of whom have died in another monthly record -- has ratcheted up the conflict, raising concerns about security and casting a pall over the country's August 20 presidential vote.
Improving security ahead of the vote was one of the stated goals of the so-called surge. But veteran observers suggest that an expanded military operation alone cannot turn the situation around -- it must be complemented by a robust political effort.
Experts argue that such an effort could contribute to driving a wedge between Afghan insurgent groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and thus help restore long-term stability to Afghanistan and avoid squandering achievements of the past eight years.
Thomas Ruttig, who has been involved in Afghanistan for the past 25 years and has worked in various diplomatic positions for the German government, the United Nations, and the European Union, argues that it's still possible to resolve the crisis through political means.
But he says it requires knowing the precise character of the insurgency and talking to and reconciling with more moderate elements of the insurgency driven by domestic factors, such as bad governance, political alienation, and a sense that they have suffered unjust persecution.
Although broadly labeled "Taliban," the insurgency in Afghanistan is organizationally driven by a few major leadership networks. On the ground, local commanders enjoy relative autonomy and exert significant influence. But so far, all previous reconciliation efforts have ignored this critical aspect.
"Mainly what is missing is a joint strategy of the Afghan government and the most important international actors supporting it towards two things -- one I call talks and the second I call reconciliation, which is a much broader and longer process of healing of wounds in a deeply hurt society," Ruttig says. "But talks [are something] less than that. Talks are for achieving political solution for ending the violence, which is the largest concern from my point of view -- [and] at least one of the two three major concerns of Afghans I am talking to."
The prospects of such a process, however, could be inhibited by Western policy makers' intense focus on dealing a military defeat to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington on July 15, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton allowed room for negotiation with the Taliban but made clear that the end goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan was "to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies, and to prevent their return to either country."
"We and our allies fight in Afghanistan because the Taliban protects Al-Qaeda and depends on it for support, sometimes coordinating activities. In other words, to eliminate Al-Qaeda we must also fight the Taliban," Clinton said. "Now, we understand that not all those who fight with the Taliban support Al-Qaeda, or believe in the extremist policies the Taliban pursued when in power."
She added that "we and our Afghan allies stand ready to welcome anyone supporting the Taliban who renounces Al-Qaeda, lays down their arms, and is willing to participate in the free and open society that is enshrined in the Afghan Constitution."
But the prospect of the current Afghan government-led reconciliation effort succeeding in peeling away large parts of the insurgency appears remote, considering the lack of success in dealing with "foot soldiers" to this point.
In a recent article in "Foreign Affairs," veteran Afghanistan observer Michael Semple argues that the four-year-old Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission has been a lackluster effort because it lacks the resources to reintegrate former fighters into society. It also crucially failed to make considerable dents into the insurgency by attracting influential commanders away.
Semple now works as an independent consultant but has a wealth of experience in negotiating with the Taliban as an adviser to the United Nations and European Union in Afghanistan over the past two decades. He argues that reconciliation is possible in Afghanistan, citing the successful integration of some senior Taliban figures into the new political system before the Taliban insurgency gained momentum in 2006.
The successes were short-lived, however, largely because the detention of key Taliban leaders who voluntarily surrendered deterred others from joining the political process.
Semple, too, suggests that Washington and its allies now must support their military surge with a political surge if it hopes to draw large numbers of fighters from the insurgency. This will do more to stabilize Afghanistan in the end than military operations, he argues, because Afghan battles are often won by securing defections, rather than just fighting.
He says the current effort to peel away foot soldiers from their hardcore leaders is unlikely to work.
"The idea of bringing foot soldiers across will never end the insurgency," Semple argues. "The key point is that those people who are political in that they have got their hundreds of followers, they have got people who follow them and trust them -- only when there is a way to engaging with them will it be possible to make some inroads into the insurgency."
Semple suggests that thrust of the Western debate about Afghanistan is to look at the endgame scenarios. In his calculation, a renewed political process focusing on reconciliation with key Afghan elements of the insurgency is a plausible winning strategy.
"There is now an overlap in aspiration between some of the key parties to the conflict," Semple says. "If you think, 'What is something which is in common between Hamid Karzai and the leaders of the insurgency and also the Western leaders?'... that is a stated commitment to ensure that there is no long-term Western combat presence in Afghanistan."
Semple is quick to add that "they have all got different takes on it -- how they would like to achieve that and what kind of guarantees would have to be in place."
Semple argues that his study of the insurgency reveals various important tendencies. Many Taliban have Afghan specific objectives and grievances, and a reconciliation process focusing on them could help realize the key objective of denying Al-Qaeda an Afghan sanctuary.
"It would be a very big mistake to associate the Afghan insurgency exclusively with Al-Qaeda as an organization or as a politic," Semper says. "I think that the way forward in the Afghan insurgency towards peace in Afghanistan will be through an exclusion of Al-Qaeda rather than a defeat of Al-Qaeda. No doubt Al-Qaeda will find other ways of popping up elsewhere."
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.