Washington — The Taliban fighters who abruptly put down weapons to embrace their long-lost "brothers" from Afghanistan's Northern Alliance have accomplished a strategic melt of legendary proportion. One day these black-turbaned zealots were defending Allah and Osama to the last breath and then ... poof. They became part of the crowd.
"I think I'm more worried by the people who are shaving and putting on business suits than I am by the bitter-end types taking to the hills," says a senior U.S. official. "At least we know what the resisters are up to and how to handle them."
The melt is not taught at West Point. But it is a familiar and effective maneuver in civil wars that pit clan against clan and region against region in tribal societies. It differs from a strategic withdrawal to safety to fight another day, where intent and balance of forces remain relatively clear. This is an ultimate exercise in ambiguity for both sides.
By offering to absorb most Taliban fighters back into Afghan society if they just put their guns down, the Northern Alliance takes a chance and makes a pragmatic admission familiar in Third World conflicts: The costs of establishing absolute control and inflicting either justice or retribution on a large scale are simply too big for their forces to bear right now.
The strategic melt buys time, lives and resources for both the winners and losers of the immediate battle. They will now reassess and renegotiate terms of engagement that were suddenly overtaken on the ground by the application of U.S. firepower. As individuals, Taliban and Alliance belong to some form of common society, even if their links are based in part on betrayal and bloodshed.
While the speed and the magnitude of the Taliban's town-by-town surrender to its brother enemies was totally unexpected by U.S. planners, it is hardly unprecedented. Scenes similar to the embraces in Kabul have occurred in Nigeria, Cambodia, Angola (several times), El Salvador, Poland (in different, less bloody circumstances) and elsewhere over the past three decades, to be followed by reconciliations of varying success.
All wars involve competition for and application of resources. Civil wars in tribal societies are especially savage: The tribe exists essentially to acquire, distribute and protect resources when no other social organization or mechanism is available. Civil wars are wars of last resort.
Both sides understand, at least subliminally, that at some point more war will destroy their own national existence, and they pull back from crossing that line. That may be happening now in Afghanistan.
But that is clearly not the case with the Pakistani, Yemeni, Chechen, Saudi and other foreign fighters who have sought to prevent the Taliban from surrendering and who fight to the death themselves rather than submit. They fight out of ideology and a perverted sense of religion that neither seeks nor accepts accommodation or reconciliation.
Until the Afghans themselves have settled on some new balance that will mean renewed war or the beginnings of peace, the United States and its allies must be exceedingly humble in their expectations and efforts.
In a distant German palace, politicians and diplomats are this week going through the motions of designing what the French call l'apres-Taliban. Meanwhile, the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other Afghan tribes are still gathering in the streets of Kabul, Kunduz and elsewhere the information that will determine whether this is war's end or simply a pause for regrouping.
The conference at Bonn's Petersburg complex that began on Tuesday will set a tone for l'apres-Taliban and may provide an external framework for the myriad compromises, amnesties and purchases of souls and guns that have to be accomplished in Afghanistan before national reconciliation can be envisioned.
But there should be no expectations of or push for finality at this conference while the U.S. pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida continues. Doing no harm to that pursuit must be the highest priority for the diplomacy at Petersburg. Commitments to future power-sharing arrangements that might inhibit the destruction of the terrorist networks that have targeted the United States cannot be tolerated by Washington, or by its allies.
Afghanistan's factions turned their country into a sanctuary for killers and fanatics who must now be hunted down by U.S. forces. Only after that is accomplished can Afghanistan be free to chart its own future.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.