Talking with the enemy

Talking with the enemy

One of the frustrating things about watching news coverage of Afghanistan is the regularity with which old ideas or initiatives are breathlessly reported as new. The premier example is Taliban reconciliation.

President Hamid Karzai first called for the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government after his election — in 2004. The Bush administration developed a reconciliation policy around the same time frame, establishing as redlines that the Taliban must renounce violence, sever ties to al-Qaida, and accept the Afghan constitution — the same redlines the Obama administration is adhering to, according to all the press reporting on it. We’ve been pursuing a negotiated end to political violence in Afghanistan for eight years. As Mitchell Reiss rightly points out, we were even talking with the Taliban during the Clinton administration.

Nonetheless, the idea pops up every 18 months or so as the new silver bullet that promises to end our involvement in the region on the cheap. And when it does, it reopens a tired debate between, on the one hand, those who reject all negotiations as a morally-troubling compromise with evil, and, on the other, those eager to accept any face-saving deal that allows a decent interval between our withdrawal and the outbreak of civil war.

Allow me to imitate President Obama here and reject the false choice between two straw men. Both sides are wrong. Negotiations are a useful tool and probably the best means to end the war. It would be more satisfying to have a Taliban surrender ceremony and a Kandahar War Crimes Tribunal. I would love to see a president or a general pound his fist on the table and bellow "Taliban delenda est!" but that seems unlikely.

On the other hand, talks are not an abandonment of our war aims or our Afghan allies. Talking with the Taliban does not lessen our commitment to defeating the Taliban as a military force. Talking is not an alternative to defeating the Taliban’s military capability, but a key weapon with which to do so. Talks are a weapon in the arsenal of counterinsurgency. Even if we fail to secure an immediate ceasefire, by talking with our enemies,* we sow discord between hardliners and moderates, encourage defections, plant disinformation, gauge their morale, and force them to ask what their true war aims are (force footsoldiers to ask what they are risking their lives for). These can all have useful battlefield effects.

What matters is not whether or not we talk with the Taliban, but what kind of agreement emerges at the end of talks. This seems to be where the Obama administration is on shaky ground. Obama and his team seem eager, too eager, to get any agreement from the Taliban on a set timetable. But it should be the content of an agreement, and its enforcement mechanisms, not its timing, that matters the most. Done right, an agreement could be the best and most cost effective opportunity to secure our interests in South Asia, including denying safe haven to al-Qaida, reversing the momentum of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency, and denying Iran a proxy in Kabul. Done wrong, a settlement could be the excuse the U.S. invokes to justify abandoning the region as its collapses around us.

All this begs the question: if we’ve been trying to reconcile with the Taliban for eight years, why haven’t we succeeded yet? The answer is because until 2010-2011, we were losing the war. The Taliban had no incentive to sit down at the negotiating table because they believed, with good reason, that they stood to gain more by fighting than by talking.

The fact that they are now openly talking about negotiations with the United States and the Afghan government, even seeking to open a political office in Qatar, is an indicator that the increased military pressure of the last two years is working. As DoD announced in October, violence actually decreased in 2011 for the first time in at least five years. The Taliban no longer believe they’re winning. At least some of the Taliban leadership seem to believe they have more to gain from talking than fighting. Our military progress has started to change their cost-benefit calculation. This a heartening sign that, at long last, our tactical military successes are contributing to strategic progress.

That explains why negotiations are not a silver bullet. They only work when the enemy feels talks are the only alternative to defeat. Talks must be matched with ruthless, withering firepower. Talks are not cheap, and they are not easy. To get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire that protects our interests in the region, we have to keep up the military pressure for some time yet. The deadline for withdrawal directly harms this goal. It is abundantly clear that the deadline is the greatest strategic threat we face in Afghanistan and one of Obama’s worst foreign policy blunders.


*Despite the vice president’s vast expertise in foreign policy and military affairs, I humbly disagree with his characterization of the Taliban. People who regularly seek to kill American soldiers in combat are our "enemies."