Time to Talk to the Taliban

The Trump administration deserves credit for its willingness to come to the table.


Parwiz Parwiz/REUTERS/Newscom

After nearly two decades of war, occupation, and nation building, Washington may finally be willing to try talking to the Taliban. The Trump administration has directed U.S. diplomats to reach out to Taliban leadership, The New York Times reported Monday, "in the hope of jump-starting negotiations to end the 17-year war" in Afghanistan.

It's about time, for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has long since evolved from retaliation for 9/11 into counterproductive morass. It is not making the United States more secure or defending any vital U.S. interest. For far too long, Afghanistan has been an enormously costly conflict for America, claiming the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and adding trillions to our national debt. That price has bought us, at best, a generational stalemate. This is what strategic failure looks like.

Nor is what we're doing in Afghanistan now working for the Afghan people. The war has killed more than 100,000 Afghans since 2001, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports more civilians were killed in the first six months of 2018 than in the same period of any year since 2009, the first year UNAMA began gathering this data.

Most troubling, the Taliban has steadily increased its territorial holds in recent years, wielding complete control of at least 14 districts and maintaining what a BBC study dubbed "an active and open physical presence" in fully 70 percent of Afghanistan. The United States has spent, adjusted for inflation, more on rebuilding Afghanistan than we dropped on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, and yet the country remains desperately poor. Most of that money was lost to corruption and waste.

Like former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him, President Donald Trump has tried to break this stagnation of violence with a military surge. Against his better instincts, heeding the counsel of hawkish advisers like the since-ousted National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Trump sent thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this past fall. Though dressed in different language, his "new" direction for Afghanistan was essentially more of the same.

Trump's surge was the fifth of its kind, and it did not work because it could not work—any more than its larger and pricier predecessors could have. (The administration did not try to explain how sending several thousand more troops could accomplish what about 140,000 outside forces in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 could not, likely because no rational explanation exists.) Indeed, the United States has no route to military victory in Afghanistan at all, as Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged in March. The only plausible victory, Mattis admitted, "will be a political reconciliation" between the Afghan government and those "on the Taliban side … who are tired of fighting."

It is to those factions the Trump administration is now wise to turn its attention. Trump's "Afghanistan strategy is not making a fundamental difference in rolling back Taliban gains," the Times report notes, and the Taliban has refused to participate in the locally-led peace process the Afghan government has been attempting to foster for months. The Taliban wants to deal with Washington, and the administration deserves credit for its willingness to come to the table.

The objection to negotiating with the Taliban is predictable: This is a terrorist organization. And though the Taliban has no ambitions and poses no threat outside of Afghanistan, let alone attempted attacks on the U.S. or Europe like al Qaeda, its evil is undeniable.

Still, though the United States likes to claim a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, the reality is we do. And the reason is simple: Sometimes negotiating with terrible people is the least bad option. It's not ideal. It's not easy or ethically uncomplicated. It won't solve all of Afghanistan's many systemic problems. But it is the United States' best shot at extrication from a nothing-left-to-win war turned nation building debacle. It is also Afghanistan's best shot at ending the ongoing violence that has plagued this country for decades.

The "American role will be important," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Kabul this month, "but we can't run the peace talks. We can't settle this from the outside. This will be settled by the Afghan people coming together, their cumulative realization that living together in harmony and peace, treating each other with dignity" is the next necessary step. Aside from requiring inclusion of the Afghan government in negotiations, Pompeo's State Department has prudently decided to set no preconditions to these talks. Everything, including, in the Times' paraphrase, "the presence of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan," is up for discussion.

We've spent 17 years systematically proving there is no external military solution that can impose security on Afghanistan. Under Democratic or Republican leadership, with a small or large force on the ground, using tightly targeted strikes or the MOAB—it doesn't matter. The only possible resolution is a political one. Diplomacy, unencumbered by the illusion that military power can solve Afghanistan's political problems, is the only viable way forward.