On Negotiating with the Taliban

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.