Talk to the Taliban

January 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — As American officials scramble to contain the fallout from an appalling video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, news that the Obama administration is carrying out secret negotiations with the Taliban has barely registered on the American political landscape. The lack of interest in the talks – and public outrage at the video – reflects how little Americans apparently care about the conflict, despite its staggering human and fiscal cost.

Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed at least 8,000 Afghan civilians, 5,500 Afghan police and soldiers, 1,800 American soldiers and 900 soldiers from other nations.

Thousands of Taliban fighters have died as well, according to American military estimates, but no reliable figure exists. While suffering heavy casualties in set-piece battles, the Taliban have excelled at suicide attacks, roadside bombs and propaganda that portrays American forces as abusive occupiers. The video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses – a hugely offensive act to Muslims and a potential war crime – will only reinforce that image.

The United States, meanwhile, has spent $345 billion in Afghanistan over the last decade, with the overwhelming majority funding U.S. military operations, not imperative but largely overlooked civilian aid efforts. The war in Iraq, by comparison, cost almost twice as much, $673 billion, and featured the same sweeping focus on military efforts.

Across the political spectrum in Washington, there is little interest in engaging with the difficult but vital questions of the post-Arab spring. How can the U.S. devise ways to more consistently, quietly and effectively back moderate Muslims? Calls from the far left and far right for completely disengaging from the Greater Middle East are a fantasy. For decades to come, the American and world economies will rely on the region’s oil.

And when it comes to Afghanistan, few are bothered by how America leaves. They just want it to happen quickly.

Opposition to the Iraq war made it chic for Democrats to be isolationist. Liberals who defend human rights glibly dismiss Afghanistan as nothing more than a quagmire. There is little acknowledgement of the gains Afghan moderates and women have made over the past decade, or the brutal payback a triumphant Taliban could mete out against them.

On the usually martial right, the Republican Party is split. John Huntsman and Ron Paul want an immediate pullout. Newt Gingrich has flip-flopped. And front-runner Mitt Romney opposes talks of any kind.

Romney is wrong. The chances of success are low, but given tepid American public support for the war, talking to the Taliban is the right step.

By any measure, many Taliban are reprehensible. They brutally ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and sheltered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda members as they planned the 9/11 attacks. According to the latest United Nations figures, Taliban attacks – primarily suicide and roadside bombings – caused 80 percent of the 1,462 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011.

Over the past decade, they have assassinated hundreds of moderate Afghans who were trying to stabilize the country. They have also kidnapped scores of Afghans and foreigners, including myself and two Afghan colleagues held captive for seven months in 2008 and 2009.

I despised the Taliban faction that kidnapped us — the Haqqani network — and saw them as criminals masquerading as a pious religious movement. Nonetheless, I believe negotiations represent a chance to split more moderate Taliban from hard-core supporters of Al Qaeda. If the Taliban refuse to compromise, exposing that grim truth will be valuable as well.

Obama administration officials emphasize that their goal is not a Treaty of Versailles-like agreement that will bring full-blown peace to Afghanistan. Instead, it is to begin a series of talks that might gradually reduce the overall level of violence in the country.

The latest opinion polls show that the American public has largely given up on the war. The central question, of course, is whether the Taliban have tired of the conflict as well. Despite claims that it had little effect, the Obama military surge weakened the Taliban and drove them from their strongholds in southern Afghanistan.

As I have written in past columns, the key remains the Pakistani military. As long as Pakistan’s generals continue their foolhardy policy of backing the Afghan Taliban as proxies to counter Indian encroachment in Afghanistan, no American military victory is possible. Today, the Afghan Taliban are waiting out the Obama surge in their safe havens in Pakistan. Involving the Pakistani military in the talks is critical.

“I waited for the surge, I waited to see what would happen,” Fariba Nawa, an Afghan American journalist and the author of the book “Opium Nation,” told me last week. “But now Pakistan has won the war.”

Nawa voiced the fear, anguish and despair of many Afghan moderates, who find themselves trapped between brutal Taliban, the erratic government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, disingenuous Pakistani generals and shortsighted American political jockeying. Obama’s promise to withdraw most American forces by the end of 2014, while popular in the U.S., signaled to the Taliban and their Pakistani military patrons that America is desperate for a way out.

Completing negotiations with Karzai on the level of American forces post-2014 would improve the chances of successful talks. Showing that the United States will train and fund Afghan security forces for years to come could help bring the Taliban seriously to the table. It will also show that Afghans must lead the fight now, not Americans.

At the same time, it is vital for understandably frustrated Americans not to see the mercurial Karzai as all of Afghanistan. The end of Karzai’s second term in 2014 – and promised departure from office – presents an opportunity. After a disjointed Bush administration effort and hugely expensive but brief Obama administration effort, the U.S. should try to do less over a longer period in Afghanistan. Throwing up our hands and completely walking away will haunt us for years.

Protecting Afghan moderates should be the bottom line of American negotiators. If the Taliban refuse to make concessions, the talks should be allowed to fail.

Across the region, the negotiations will be viewed as a measure of American reliability, practicality and respect for the enormous price moderate Muslims are paying in the struggle against extremism. Americans may no longer care, but our present and future Muslim allies are watching.

PHOTO: Captured Taliban insurgents and their weapons are presented to the media in Ghazni province, December 19, 2011. REUTERS/Mustafa Andaleb


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The people in the USA who advocate war, war and more war have to bring them to an end. They are losing control over the population of the USA too and need to consolidate their power base here before our pro-forma elections later this year.

So now they are deploying drones here to keep their thumb on people. Handy things, drones. Now they just need to embed tracking chips in people’s foreheads. Ah the horrors done in the name of “freedom”! And the name of religion.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Foreign troops will always be considered an occupying force by native peoples. Those who benefit from the occupation smile and shine the occupiers on. The rest live in quiet fear or resistance. They all hate the occupation. The arrogance and stupidity it takes conduct foreign policy contrary to these truths is a distincly American trait.

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

“The arrogance and stupidity it takes conduct foreign policy contrary to these truths is a distinctly American trait.”
Beg to differ; consider the British “Empire” for one.
However, what is a distinctly HUMAN trait is our failure to learn from history. As long as religion and tribal mentality continue to reign, the so-called “civil” world will find itself in such “quagmires” trying simple solutions for complex problems.
Regarding the lack of interest of Taliban talks on the part of the American people, perhaps it’s the fault of the American “mainstream” media who fail to report it(?).Or is it just going over our collective heads?

Posted by knobbybob | Report as abusive

We will no doubt keep s force in Bagram for counter terrorism (drone attacks), training and special forces missions. As the writer said if they walk away we can prosecute them from the air and with special forces. The Taliban hunting forces since formed have taken out about 10,000 Taliban is a short period of time having less than 100 casualties. The Taliban taking a home rule force majure without training international terrorists is a major step forward to ridding not only Afghanistan but Pakistan of the Wahabist type terrorists from the mideast. Peace in Karachi is part of the formula since the Taliban is used by ISI and the military to take the Pakistan side in that area. If the Taliban pushed by the arabs continue to kill people in Pakistan (thousands killed every year), then Pakistan will have to come down hard. If they take a more peopceful route having self rule, their Sharia in their own tribal areas, everyone will benefit. Taking the absurd GOP warhawk position of no talks, only leaves us in a never ending war. We are not the Russians leveling villages killing all when opposition comes from a tribe.

Posted by JamesChirico | Report as abusive

Sometimes I wonder why more Journalist like yourself don’t run for office. I agree with your opinion here it inspires me to get this message out. I am planning on at the very least calling my congress woman and letting her know of your opinion and that it is one I support.

Posted by PunkySteele | Report as abusive

The entire concern has been a waste of lives, money and time. No matter what any writer decides to say, or government, or military leaders, would like or wish to tell us otherwise. Those responsible have turned their backs on these concerns a long time ago. Try to leave under the darkness, because you’ll never see daylight in Afghanistan. As stated nobody cares anyway.

Posted by quad | Report as abusive

“a hugely offensive act to Muslims and a potential war crime ”

Is it absolutely necessary to break things down to religious sections?

Or are there some people or religions that would not find pissing on the dead offensive?

How about we just say that those soldiers did something that is OFFENSIVE TO ANYONE, instead of making it specific to Muslims, as if they might be hypersensitive to something that the west would no be?

Posted by Omicron | Report as abusive

I appeal: There’s no hope in Afghanistan, while the world now is more and more global. America and the rest of the global community should at least allow those Afghanis wishing to leave, and with some skills, to enter USA or other countries. This would be the best gift Americans and others could give to all the moderate Afghans fed up with living in fear, insecurity and dirty poverty. It’s silly to hope that US would best protect moderate Muslims by keeping them in Afghanistan, and also keeping them there will cost the US treasury much more taxpayer money. I met personally one Afghan expat living in Netherlands and all I can say are positive things. I think Afghans are good people, just that the place they live has no future at the moment due to international pressures.

Posted by Radek.kow1 | Report as abusive