Is the U.S. Ready to Negotiate With the Taliban?

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Source: The Atlantic, 3/29/2011

ASP Fellow Joshua Foust is a featured guest columnist.

By Joshua Foust

Before we can talk to the enemy, the U.S. may need a frank discussion of its own

“Western diplomats, Taliban leaders and the Afghan government,” The New York Times recently explained, “have begun to take a hard look at what it would take to start a negotiation to end the fighting.” The details of what they report — about the demands of both sides, about preconditions for talks to happen, and about necessary outcomes once talks are concluded — are the subject of much discussion in Washington’s foreign policy circles this week, including a major report released by the Century Foundation. It may well be the only realistic option left for ever ending the war (even with the especially brutal Haqqani network). But, nearly a decade into this war, the prospect of even opening negotiations with the Taliban can still inspire in many Americans a sense of outrage, fear, and, at times, even betrayal. If negotiation is indeed the best or only way to end the war, there are many difficult and important questions to be answered: What will be the Taliban’s role in governance? Do NATO forces remain, and how long? How will free and fair be guaranteed? But there’s another looming question: Is Washington, and the U.S. as a whole, ready, politically and culturally, to negotiate with the Taliban, the same group that sheltered al-Qaeda before and after September 11, 2001, to end the war that has already claimed so many lives?

Before we can truly commit ourselves to negotiations, there are a number of potential problems we must solve at home. One such problem is the assumptions we assign to talking with the Taliban. A number of human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, frame this as a binary choice: negotiate with the Taliban, or protect the rights of women. But the idea of negotiating with the Taliban is not directly related to the plight of Afghanistan’s women — there’s no reason to assume that women’s rights would be cast aside as a prerequisite to the talks. If anything, this could be an opportunity to place women’s rights within the larger negotiating agenda. However, that would require both the U.S. and the Taliban to order their priorities and decide how to weigh women’s rights among the other issues that would be discussed in the course of a negotiated settlement. That’s not an easy thing to do, but with violence against women still ongoing in Afghanistan, the best course for ending such human rights abuses may be the same course for ending the war itself: negotiation.

What could also complicate American willingness to engage in peace talks is the hard fact that, ultimately, we are not the lead party. This is between Afghans: the Taliban and Hamid Karzai’s government. Any negotiations process must be endorsed, but not driven by, the United States in order to work. The U.S. cannot and should not exert too much influence over the details of any deal, or it will risk undermining the popular authority of the agreement with the Afghan people — including the lower ranks of the Taliban.. The U.S. taking a secondary role in the negotiations is going to make them far less attractive to already wary Americans.

Within the Afghan government itself, there is a growing disagreement over the necessity of peace talks — driven, at least in part, by the unintentional disenfranchisement of Pashtuns in the Parliamentary elections, which put far more Tajiks and Hazaras in the Wolesi Jirga than there would have been in an open election.

But, in Afghanistan, at least there is a national conversation — a public debate over the merits and pitfalls of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. In the U.S., there is near-silence. Congressmen from Left and Right have voiced their opposition to the war, but there is almost no discussion of what to do with the other party to that war. Even then, merely contemplating an end to our mission there inspires derision among the political class more than it does sober contemplation.

The language we in the U.S. use to discuss what comes next in the Afghan war, the way we talk and think about how it could end, leave little room for a negotiated settlement, a context in which victory and defeat are not particularly useful or explanatory ideas. If we can successfully transition our thinking about Afghanistan from winning a war to managing a problem, a whole new realm of political and strategic opportunities would open up. But that’s a major cognitive shift and no easy thing to do after a decade of framing the war against the Taliban as one of absolute good versus evil, in which only total and decisive victory would be acceptable.

Public discussions in the U.S. about the war tend to focus only on the military aspect of what happens after the planned 2014 troop drawdown. But there will have to be political transition as well, in which the Taliban, whether we like it or not, as a politically relevant Afghan group, will have to play a role. But the politics of Afghanistan, and of our involvement there, remain surprisingly absent from out public debate over the war. Only last week, when General Petraeus visited Washington to give Congress a progress report on the war, the talk focused almost entirely on the military aspects. Petraeus, as well as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy, who also testified, spoke of political matters on briefly and as secondary the military mission. That doesn’t mean that Petraeus and the Pentagon are ignorant of the political aspect of the war or its importance. But what they chose to discuss and not discuss provides a telling indication that, even at the highest levels, our national conversation about the war gives little attention to the importance of its political elements. But it’s exactly those elements that will matter most in negotiating with the Taliban — an inherently political proposition.

The political discussion and the Taliban’s place in that discussion are vital to the war effort: they will determine whether the fighting drags on into infinity, as many worry, or if there we can pursue a less-than-total-victory outcome that, though imperfect, nevertheless accomplishes some of our goals in Afghanistan and allows us some way out. We in the U.S. desperately need to have our own political discussion, talking about talks, before we will be ready to engage with the Taliban. And better to have it now, while we still have power and troops and influence in Afghanistan and can affect the eventual outcome, rather than in 2014, when we will have all the disadvantages with no strengths.