One of the great bugaboos of the Bush era was the notion of talking with the enemy. Once a group was defined as an enemy, even the mildest hint of a contact would meet with torrents of indignation. When the definition of the “enemy” went into soft focus, as various parties that might or might not have some ties to Al Qaeda were added, this approach was particularly troublesome. It made it difficult to divide and conquer—to peel off groups on the periphery in order to make the foe weaker and less stable. During the campaign, Barack Obama articulated this fairly obvious critique of Bush-era “War on Terror” policy, and his administration seemed set to pursue a more subtle approach. Talking with the enemy might be on the agenda.
But while his administration has sharply ramped up military and paramilitary operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it appears reluctant to engage the Taliban. Indeed, this has been a point of friction between the Obama Administration and Afghanistani President Hamid Karzai, who has aggressively pressed for direct talks and persuaded Saudi Arabia to act as an honest broker. A number of Taliban leaders traveled to Saudi Arabia in late 2009 in an effort to bring this about. The U.S. command has tried to downsize the Taliban by recruiting some of its less loyal lieutenants, but it has spurned direct dialogue. In the current New York Review of Books, Ahmed Rashid takes a hard look at this predicament, outlining the current sense of McChrystal’s command:
The present US military strategy aims to peel away Taliban commanders and fighters and resettle them without making any major political concessions or changes to the Afghan constitution. But Washington remains deeply divided about talking to the Taliban leaders. The State and Defense Departments, the White House, and the CIA all have different views about it, and there are also divisions between the US and its allies.
General McChrystal told me that many mid-level Taliban commanders and their men are waiting for Karzai to announce a reconciliation strategy before offering to change sides. “The reintegration of former Taliban into society offers a good chance to reduce the insurgency in Afghanistan…while al-Qaeda needs to be hunted and destroyed.” Whether the US and its allies should hold talks with the Taliban leadership, he said, is a political decision to be made by Washington. In December Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me that in his estimation some 70 percent of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money rather than because of ideological commitment to the movement, and they can be won over.
Rashid traces the complex steps taken by Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services to help bring about a dialogue with the Taliban. But he is unconvinced that the American side has the will to talk:
Talking to the Taliban requires more than just secret cooperation among intelligence agencies or the CIA handing out bribes to Taliban commanders to change sides—as it did with the Northern Alliance in 2001. There is an urgent need for a publicly promoted strategy involving concrete efforts to build political institutions and provide humanitarian aid in ways that do not require intrusive Western control—a strategy that could attract many members of the Taliban, reduce violence, and placate Afghans who are opposed to all such compromises. Obama officials have talked up the need for such a public strategy but accomplished little during his first year in office. Yet such goals are of paramount importance.
If the United States continues to spurn dialogue, there is little doubt as to the strategy the Taliban and their Pakistani allies will pursue. They are likely to pull back, shelter in the holdouts and in Pakistan, and wait the next eighteen months until the American draw-down begins. They view the struggle with America as a waiting game. They’re not going anywhere, and they only have to wait for the Americans to declare victory and leave.
Talking with the Taliban need not presuppose a cessation of military operations, of course. But Karzai’s own desire for such talks reflects a simple fact: the legitimacy his government craves is unlikely to come without some dialogue with his Taliban adversaries. Kabul needs to reconcile itself with at least a part of this opposition, which has grown steadily in size and stature over the last four years.