Should the United States negotiate directly with the Taliban in order to bring about an end to the war in Afghanistan?
More to the point: is it even possible to do so and be successful?
The answer to the first question was given by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he confirmed that the US had already established “preliminary contacts” with the Taliban in order to facilitate negotiations. The talks, thought to have been initiated at the beginning of this year, parallel the ongoing talks with the Taliban that are being conducted by the Karzai government.
As for answering the second question, almost all observers believe it is impossible to negotiate with Mullah Omar and “Taliban Central,” but that there might be a chance for success engaging local Taliban groups in order to convince them to lay down their arms.
But perhaps the ultimate question that needs to be asked is: should we even be negotiating with a terrorist enemy? The thought of holding talks with the Taliban angers some of our troops, and some proponents of our mission in Afghanistan believe that it is premature at best to be thinking of negotiating an exit from Afghanistan.
What is driving the urge to negotiate? Clearly, the administration wants most of America’s 150,000 troops out of Afghanistan, or scheduled to leave, by Election Day in 2012. The war has become a political millstone and could become an issue in the campaign if progress toward an American exit can’t be demonstrated by the president. And the quickest way to achieve that goal is to broker a power sharing deal between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai that would obviate the need for US combat troops.
The obstacles to successful negotiations are many and daunting:
1. Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership will never compromise
Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution puts it succinctly: “[T]he problem is that [the Taliban] leadership is not likely to do a deal because these are pretty hard-core ideologues and there’s really no evidence [that they're willing to compromise]…it takes two to tango.”
Indeed it does. There also has to be an incentive for Omar to talk because as it stands now, all he has to do is be patient and wait until the US draw-down of troops reaches a point where it would be difficult to stop his fighters from taking over large swaths of the country.
CNN’s terrorism expert Peter Bergen is even more pessimistic. Pointing out that Mullah Omar’s title is “Commander of the Faithful,” Bergen observes that the title means he is not only a commander of the Taliban, but of all Muslims. “This suggests that Mullah Omar is not only a religious fanatic, but also a fanatic with significant delusions of grandeur…Negotiations with religious fanatics who have delusions of grandeur generally do not go well,” writes Bergen.
2. Who are we negotiating with?
If not Mullah Omar, just who is it that we are talking to? Therein lays the biggest obstacle to negotiations.
Talks with the Taliban might be likened to the way the US government negotiated with some Native American tribes in the 19th century. Negotiators would gather 3 or 4 local chiefs together and reach an agreement that was supposed to be observed by an entire tribe. But some tribal groups will be invariably left out of the process and might refuse to go along with the deal, leading to misunderstandings and war.
Something similar faces US and Afghan negotiators when talking to the Taliban. The Telegraph’s diplomatic editor Praveen Swami lists the members of the Taliban with which the Afghan government has held sporadic talks in recent months, pointing out that it is composed of “middle-aged men who have been away from the front line for years.” Swami quotes noted Taliban expert Thomas Ruttig who believes that leadership is changing hands to a “younger, more radical generation of Taliban commanders” who, because they have served in combat recently, carry more influence than any of the Taliban figures with which the Karzai government has talked in the last few years.
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