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On Negotiating with the Taliban

The United States has taken a crash course in counterinsurgency these recent years. It has not been a military affair alone. The confirmation that counterinsurgencies also require a political solution — and an indigenous one at that — has not so much been a lesson learned as a preexisting theory validated. In Iraq, for example, Gens. David Petraeus and Odierno relied heavily on the invaluable contributions of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his team of professionals. Together their joint military-diplomatic tact, the Iraq surge, led to very, very good things.

There exists the possibility, however, that the Obama administration, along with our European allies, might extract the wrong lesson from the successful pacification of Iraq — and disastrously apply it to Afghanistan. I speak of negotiating with the Taliban. As this is written, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are hosting an international conference in London, the purpose of which is to design a strategy and find consensus on how best to “buy off” the Taliban.

While the official American position has yet to be publicly divulged, U.S. officials seem to welcome the idea. Indeed, there have been reports that suggest it has been the West that is pressuring an otherwise reluctant Karzai to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban. Secretary of Defense Gates recently called the Taliban “part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point.” General McChrystal has said, “I think that the reintegration of fighters can take a lot of the energy out of the current levels of the insurgency.”

No one in principle should be against cutting deals with whomever we must to save American lives. After more than eight years of war, Afghanistan remains a lethal land. There were twice as many U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan in 2009 as there were in 2008; coalition deaths were up, as well. A cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan would be welcome in its own right and there would also be, hypothetically, a few strategic benefits to “calming” the war theater.

There can be no enduring peace in Afghanistan without addressing significant challenges in Pakistan. More significantly, there can be no peace in the “Af-Pak” region — and the broader Middle East itself — until the Islamic Republic of Iran collapses. So why up the ante militarily in Afghanistan, a mere proxy conflict, when we have yet to wholeheartedly throw our geopolitical weight around with the far more important Pakistanis and Iranians (or so the logic goes)? As Churchill once said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Needless to say, Afghanistan is a very complicated, complex place. Could such an olive branch with the Taliban be the key to winding down the war? There are three reservations, in particular, that should give our policymakers a moment of pause.

For starters, the Taliban have never given any inkling of indication that they are prepared to surrender — for whatever niceties we have offered them. The Taliban have already rejected the most recent attempt to hold peace talks with the United States and Afghan government. For years, the Taliban have continuously mocked and ridiculed the idea of negotiating with the West as “lunatic” efforts to “deviate their minds.” Why would we believe that their minds have changed? Delegations from the UN have been misled by people like Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the former foreign minister of the Taliban, who surrendered to the United States in 2002. For years, Mutawakil has insisted he could convince the rest of the Taliban to follow his enlightened lead — and we have, unbelievably, believed him. The Taliban consider him nothing more than a coward interested in postbellum political power. It’s time we do the same. Mutawakil will not deliver peace.

Nor will money. These are men who are willing and eager to kill themselves and their children in order to kill us and our children. They do not want material gain. We insist on believing that they think within our constructs of reason and rationality, but they do not. The Taliban have told us this time and again, and yet we refuse to believe them. “They [the West] think that mujahideen have taken up arms to gain money or grab power. … This is baseless and futile,” the Taliban announced in their most recent statement, continuing, “Had the aim of the mujahideen … been obtainment of material goals, they would accept dominance of the invaders in the first place and would have supported them. Everything was in their hand, comfortable life, money, and power.”

We are not thinking like the enemy. This is not the Great War, where two Western adversaries can call timeout and enjoy Christmas Eve dinner, talking about their dames and fräuleins, before going back to the trenches. The Taliban are battle-hardened warriors, most of whom have known nothing but war their entire lives. They fought the Russians for a decade (1979-89), the Americans for close to another decade (2001-10), and each other the decade in between. They’re merciless killers who must either kill or be killed to find significance in their lives and to reinforce their faith in their theological fairy tales. They do not fight for Clausewitzian purposes — that is to say, concrete political ends — as do liberal Western democracies. For the Taliban, the purpose of war is war itself.

Why would the Taliban give up now? Yes, President Obama announced this past December the reinforcement of 30,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan — although he simultaneously proclaimed U.S. troops would begin to withdraw in July 2011. How can we logically expect the Taliban to acquiesce now of all times, when the going’s good and the satanic infidels are scheduling their departure?

Secondly, the Taliban are not like the Sunni tribes in Iraq’s Anbar and Diyala Province. Those tribesmen were compelled to side with al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, because the Zarqawists had filled the security vacuum in those provinces and were intimidating, torturing, and killing those Iraqis who did not submit to them. To those Iraqis who rejected al-Qaeda, their children were baked alive. It was not until Col. Sean MacFarland promised unwavering security to tribal elders that the Anbari tribes did “flip” to our side. The subsequent military surge of 2007-08 continued this trend and solidified those gains, until al-Qaeda in Iraq was destroyed.

To the contrary, the Taliban proudly hosted Osama bin Laden’s boys before and after the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country. Lest we forget, the Taliban rejected President Bush’s offer of peace before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. All the Taliban had to do was renounce al-Qaeda and hand over al-Qaeda’s leadership to the international community, but the one-eyed Mullah Omar would have none of it. War it was.

Lastly, and for this very reason, one cannot separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda. Despite our best efforts to do so, the two movements are invariably like-minded, and thus linked, in their common romantic struggle for Islamic fascist dominance. The problem is not some vague “terrorism” — as if Taliban suicide bombers are somehow less mean than al-Qaeda suicide bombers. The problem in Afghanistan is its culture of Islamist fanaticism, spearheaded by the theocratic woman-brutalizing Taliban regime. By inviting the Taliban back to power, are we not undermining the very premise of the war itself? What then was the purpose, the political end, of overthrowing the Taliban in 2001? Would not everything consequently have then been in vain, for naught?

The United States cannot (and shouldn’t attempt to) rid Afghanistan of all of its demons. One does not survive in Afghanistan without getting one’s hands dirty. We have worked with warlords and militiamen before and should continue to do so with a clear conscience. As NATO’s new civilian chief Mark Sedwill phrased it, we might have to work with “some pretty unsavory characters.” He’s right: a program that “weans” Taliban fighters out of the Taliban should be welcomed and pursued. Think: de-Baathification.

But peace with the Taliban movement itself is neither possible nor preferable.