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.