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Talking to the Taliban — Obama Style

The most surprising thing about President Obama’s suggestion that America should perhaps reach out to moderate Taliban is undoubtedly the very expression “moderate Taliban.”

But President Obama is not the first person to imagine that there is such a thing. In April 2007, while on a visit to Kabul, the then chairman of the German Social Democratic party (SPD), Kurt Beck, suggested that it might be a good idea to hold talks with … “moderate Taliban.”

“We can explore the possibility of national reconciliation involving the Taliban,” Beck explained in remarks that echo almost word-for-word those of Obama, as reported by the New York Times last Saturday. Obama is also said to want to “explore” the “possibility” of “reconciliation” — and with “moderate Taliban,” no less. But, to be more precise, it is rather Obama’s remarks that echo those of Beck uttered almost two years earlier.

Beck’s words, moreover, were presumably chosen in consultation with the German Foreign Office of Beck’s party colleague, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Thus, at an April 3, 2007, press conference (German link), a foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed that, “the foreign minister is in constant contact with Herr Beck” and that Beck and Steinmeier had a “common appraisal” of the situation in Afghanistan. Asked what, then, “a moderate Taliban would look like,” the spokesperson merely pointed out that it would be better to speak not of “moderate Taliban” but rather of “moderate forces within the resistance.” By dubbing the Taliban the Afghan “resistance” [Widerstand], Steinmeier’s foreign office, in effect, conferred even greater legitimacy upon them than Beck’s original version had.

It has been reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has welcomed Obama’s suggestion. One can assume he is being polite. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta was less so two years ago. The expression “moderate Taliban,” he told Germany’s NDR television, “is the invention of people who do not have a clue about Afghanistan.” Referring to Germany’s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) and the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, of which Beck is governor, Spanta added that Beck’s suggestion to hold talks with “moderate” Taliban was about as appropriate “as if I would say from Afghanistan or Kabul that one should form a coalition in Rhineland-Palatinate with the NPD or with ‘moderate’ [members of the] NPD” (source: Die Welt).

The Afghan Minister of Commerce and Industry Amin Farhang explained to the German newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that the Karzai government had, in any case, already been pursuing a program of national reconciliation for two years. “All Taliban who swear off violence are offered the chance to participate in the reconstruction of the country and in the democratic process. But the hard core of the Islamists like Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his [since deceased] military chief Mullah Dadullah do not want peace. They want the destruction of the new Afghanistan.” (source: Focus).

Ignoring the Karzai government’s objections, the German diplomat Tom Koenigs went further than Beck, suggesting that even “war criminals” should be included in negotiations. (See a translation of his remarks here.) At the time, Koenigs was the UN special envoy to Afghanistan. Some eight months later, in December 2007, two European officials, including an aid to Koenigs, were expelled from Afghanistan after having apparently had contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Afghan sources suggested that the two men had not only been “talking” with the Taliban, but had indeed been providing arms and money to them.

It should be noted that considering “how to engage constructive partners affiliated with the Taliban” was one of the ostensibly urgent “first action items” for Afghanistan laid out in the Bertelsmann Foundation’s “briefing book” for the Obama administration. (On the “briefing book,” see my earlier PJM report here.) “Afghan politics are complex, and the Taliban is not a monolithic label,” the Bertelsmann authors advise (p. 21). As discussed here, Germany’s Bertelsmann Corporation is the principal source of the president’s personal wealth.