An Open Letter to President Obama


Mr. President,

We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.

Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population. Foreign forces have by now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Red Army.

Politically, the settlement resulting from the 2001 intervention is unsustainable because the constituencies of whom the Taliban are the most violent expression are not represented, and because the highly centralized constitution goes against the grain of Afghan tradition, for example in specifying national elections in fourteen of the next twenty years.

The operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and in Helmand provinces are not going well. What was supposed to be a population-centred strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property. Night raids have become the main weapon to eliminate suspected Taliban, but much of the Afghan population sees these methods as illegitimate. Due to the violence of the military operations, we are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside, with a direct effect on the sustainability of the war. These measures, beyond their debatable military results, foster grievance. With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. Drone strikes in Pakistan have a marginal effect on the insurgency but are destabilizing Pakistan. The losses of the insurgency are compensated by new recruits who are often more radical than their predecessors.

The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure. Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement.

The 2014 deadline to put the Afghan National Army in command of security is not realistic. Considering the quick disappearance of the state structure at a district level, it is difficult to envision a strong army standing alone without any other state institutions around. Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think -- a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more -- are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.

The current contacts between the Karzai government and the Taliban are not enough. The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account. In addition, from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year. This is why we ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. A ceasefire and the return of the insurgency leadership in Afghanistan could be part of a de-escalation process leading to a coalition government. Without any chance for a military victory, the current policy will put the United States in a very difficult position.

For a process of political negotiation to have a chance of addressing the significant core grievances and political inequalities it must occur on multiple levels – among the countries that neighbour Afghanistan as well as down to the provincial and sub-district.  These various tables around which negotiations need to be held are important to reinforce the message -- and the reality -- that discussions about Afghanistan’s political future must include all parties and not just be a quick-fix deal with members of the insurgency.

We believe that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan, enables the Taliban to become a responsible actor in the Afghan political order, ensures that Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for international terrorism, protects the Afghan people’s hard-won freedoms, helps stabilize the region, renders the large scale presence of international troops in Afghanistan unnecessary and provides the basis of an enduring relationship between Afghanistan and the international community. All the political and diplomatic ingenuity that the United States can muster will be required to achieve this positive outcome. It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests.


Mariam Abou Zahab

Researcher and humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan in the 1980s-early 1990s

Matthieu Aikins


Gregg Albo

Political Science Faculty, York University, Toronto, Canada

Scott Atran

Anthropologist (University of Michigan) and author of Talking to the Enemy

Bayram Balci

Researcher in CNRS and former Director of Institut Français d’Etudes sur l'Asie Centrale, IFEAC

Scott Bohlinger

Political and Security Analyst

Rony Brauman

Former head of Médecins Sans Frontières

Colonel (retired) Rene Cagnat

Scholar on Central Asia (IRIS)

Rupert Talbot Chetwynd

Author of Yesterday’s Enemy - Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Carlo Cristofori

Secretary, International Committee for Solidarity with the Afghan Resistance(established 1980)

Michael Cohen

Senior Fellow, American Security Project

Robert Crews

Associate Professor, Dept of History, Stanford University and co-editor of The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

Author of The Spy of the Heart and humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Rob Densmore

US Navy Afghanistan veteran and journalist

Gilles Dorronsoro

Visiting Scholar (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and author of Revolution Unending

Bernard Dupaigne

Professor, Musée de l’Homme, Paris; author of several books about Afghanistan; humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan, 1980-2010.

David B. Edwards

Anthropologist (Williams College) and author of Before Taliban

Jason Elliot

Author of An Unexpected Light

Christine Fair

Assistant Professor, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University

Nick Fielding

Journalist and writer

Bernard Finel

Associate Professor of National Security Strategy, National War College (USA)

Joshua Foust

Military analyst and author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from

Martin Gerner

Journalist, author and filmmaker (Generation Kunduz: the war of the others)

Antonio Giustozzi

Author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop and editor of Decoding the New Taliban

Ali Gohar

Freelance consultant, Just Peace International

Edward Grazda

Photographer, author of Afghanistan 1980-1989 and Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000

Prof. Dr. Eva Gross

Senior Research Fellow, Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit (Brussels)

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi

Associate Professor, James Madison University

Emilie Jelinek

Senior Researcher, The Liaison Office (TLO), Afghanistan

Muhammad Ajmal Khan Karimi

Kabul-based freelance journalist and research analyst

Jerome Klassen

Visiting Research Fellow, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA)

Daniel Korski

Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

Felix Kuehn

Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban

Musa Khan Jalalzai

Analyst and author of Taliban and Post-Taliban Afghanistan

Minna Jarvenpaa

Former Head of Analysis and Policy Planning, UNAMA

Colonel Robert C. Jones

U.S. Army Special Forces (Ret.), Director of Strategic Understanding, Center for Advanced Defense Studies (USA)

Dr. Leonard Lewisohn

Senior Lecturer in Persian, University of Exeter (UK)

Anatol Lieven

Professor, War Studies Department of King’s College London and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country

Charles Lindholm

Anthropologist, Boston University, and author of Generosity and Jealousy

Bob McKerrow

Author of Mountains of our Minds – Afghanistan

Shaheryar Mirza

Reporter for �Express 24/7’ (Pakistan)

Nick Miszak

Sociologist, Senior Research Officer, TLO, Kabul

Alessandro Monsutti

Research Director, Transnational Studies/Development Studies at The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Janan Mosazai

Kabul-based Freelance Journalist

Naheed Mustafa

Freelance Journalist

Jean Pfeiffer

Japan Assistant to ACAF

Gareth Porter


Ahmed Rashid

Journalist and author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos

Amandine Roche

Afghanistan consultant and author of The Flight of the Afghan Doves

Nir Rosen

Fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security, and author of Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World

Gerard Russell

Research Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University

Prof. Justin Rudelson

Senior Lecturer, Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures, Dartmouth College and author of Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook and Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism along China’s Silk Road

Lisa Schirch

Consultant and Professor of Peacebuilding, Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University (USA)

Emrys Schoemaker

Consultant and media advisor

Abdulkader H. Sinno

Associate Professor, Indiana University and author of Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond

Alex Strick van Linschoten

Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban

Astri Surkhe

Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

Yama Torabi

Co-Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan

Matt Waldman

Afghanistan Analyst

Mosharraf Zaidi

Independent Analyst & Columnist for The News

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If you are an author, analyst or researcher with experience and time spent working in Afghanistan and wish to add your name/signature to this letter, please email