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Time to Talk to the Taliban

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

Parwiz Parwiz/REUTERS/NewscomParwiz Parwiz/REUTERS/NewscomAfter 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.

Photo Credit: Parwiz Parwiz/REUTERS/Newscom

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    I'm split on this. I understand trying to talk to your enemy to bring peace. But I don't think these guys are willing budge from their extreme approach to Sharia's law.

    Don't behead someone because they will not convert to your religion for a few years, then maybe we'll come to the table.

    ""And though the Taliban has no ambitions and poses no threat outside of Afghanistan,"'

    Tell that to Pakistan.

  • Just Say'n||

    These are fair points of concern, but they don't hold up when we consider that our closest ally in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia

  • ||

    No kidding.

    As I said, in another comment, Pakistan bears a huge part of the responsibility for the creation of the Taliban.

    But a much bigger part of the blame goes to the Saudi Royal Family whose millions in subsidies (along with millions from private Saudi sources other than the bin Ladens) to radical fundamentalist clerics world wide created a web of terror networks from Al Qaeda it ISIS that have destabilized much of the Middle and Far East as well as North Africa. All of those subsidies were intended to appease those fundamentalists and keep them from working to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

    We've seen how well that worked out for everyone concerned, haven't we?

    I hate to overwork an old saw, but with allies like the Saudis (and others) who needs enemies?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    All of those subsidies were intended to appease those fundamentalists and keep them from working to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

    We've seen how well that worked out for everyone concerned, haven't we?

    Seems to have worked out great for the Saudi monarchy.

  • ||

    Well, someone has to benefit from nefarious schemes, don't they?

    I wonder how well the Saudi princes would have done if they weren't getting billions in military aid from Uncle Sugar.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Except that our closest ally in the ME is Israel.

    Not Saudi Arabia.

  • Juice||

    What do they do for the US again?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The USA is never going to get the religious zealots to alter their Sharia law view.

    By bombing them, we just create more religious fighters.

    Strike a peace deal and get the USA out of meddling in other nation's affairs.

    Let the Islamic nuts pack into one country and run it into the ground. If they attack us, nuke them into glass. Problem solved.

  • Curt||

    "The USA is never going to get the religious zealots to alter their Sharia law view." - And shouldn't be trying.

    "By bombing them, we just create more religious fighters. Strike a peace deal and get the USA out of meddling in other nation's affairs." - Amen. Step 1 to striking a peace deal: leave.

  • ||

    Pakistan has it's own problems, one of which is that their intelligence agency bears a huge chunk of the responsibility for creating the Taliban in the first place. Admittedly, after seeing the error of its ways, the Pakistani military has back away and is now trying to restrain the forces they unleashed in past times.

    There is nothing the US can do to here. Going beyond an incursion to hunt down Al Qaeda members and punitive strikes to tell the Afghan government; ie, the Taliban that we would not tolerate their harboring anyone like Osama bin Laden, was a fool's errand that the US agreed to to gain broad support for military action.

    Instead of the foregoing short and brutal punitive expedition we embarked upon a program of nation building, the impetus for which came mostly* from our "allies", in exchange for the "support" of our "allies".

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    True, The Saudi's have played a big part in terrorism and is often ignored.

    The Taliban are some of the worst of the worst. I knew we would one day have to deal with them when they started blowing up budda statues. They are very much a my way or the highway type people with death as the punishment.

    To me, talking to them and striking a deal gives them some political validity they don't deserve.
    We can pull out of Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban. Leave it to Afghanistan to figure out since it's always been some they needed to figure out since the days the Taliban started moving in.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    Not sure how that post ended up there. Should have been under Just Say'n 12:08 post.

  • Just Say'n||

    Gillespie owes Walter Block an apology.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Fair enough. But also, Walter Block owes libertarians an apology.

  • Just Say'n||

    What do you have against Block? You seem to just have a vendetta against anyone even tangentially related to the Mises Institute. Do you take issue with Jeffrey Tucker, Michael Malice, and Dave Smith too?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I actually don't have a problem with this and wondered why it wasn't at least a back-channel strategy with the last two administrations. Maybe it was. What's the worst that can happen? We get nothing in return and so we continue to drone bomb them in perpetuity.

  • ||

    Well, we could have avoided it all in the first place by concentrating on Al Qaeda and leaving the Taliban in power with a stern warning, backed up with a few air strikes on strategic targets, to never harbor anyone like Osama bin Laden again or more of the same. Instead we went for the "regime change"* option and engaged in a nation building occupation which eventually left us facing a reinvigorated Taliban that will take power within a few weeks of the last "allied" (read American) troops leaving.

    *Regime change in Afghanistan was on the wish list of Huge number of people other than neocons. The wholw campaign of demonizing the Taliban had be going on since the Clinton administration (along with a campaign of demonizing Saddam Hussein to encourage "regime change" in Iraq). Those news stories about blowing up Buddhist statues and executing homosexuals in soccer stadiums and closing down girls schools and forcing women into burqas were never aimed at conservatives. They were part of a plan to get Liberals on the side of military action.

    If you want to get conservatives on board with invaded a foreign country you invoke images of American interests or security (those foreign heathen bastards are going to come and rape our women etc). To get Liberals on board you invoke images of foreign, heathen bastards mistreating its own citizens (there killing the gays, their raping their own women etc).

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    They were part of a plan to get Liberals on the side of military action.

    Then the left head-faked and got on board with burkas and spiriting away teen girls to be forcibly married to old pervs in the name of tolerance and multiculturalism.

    It was a dash clever move!

  • ||

    I don't actually recall anything like that happening.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The USA helped start this mess by giving money and weapons to Islamic zealots and then meddling in Muslim national affairs.

    The other thing is if all the Taliban are in one country and they again assist those that attack the USA, we can easily turn them to dust at one time.

  • Rebel Scum||

    using tightly targeted strikes or the MOAB—it doesn't matter.

    But using the MOAB was badass. That said, it is time to get out of the middle-east.

  • DJF||

    But, but, but wouldn't this push the anti-Trump meme that Trump likes hanging around dictators!!!!

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I'm normally all for negotiating with one's enemies after a certain point. Endless war makes no sense. But you have to assume some level of humanity, however brutal, exists in those enemies.

    If I'm not mistaken, these are the same people who arrested a teenage couple for holding hands (gasp!) in public, and meted out a punishment by gang-raping the boy's older sister, who was NOT EVEN PRESENT at the alleged hand-holding incident! And it wasn't some misogynistic fringe group who did this either, it was the village elders themselves! That's a level of evil that, in mind mind, goes even beyond Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc.

    What can you do with such enemies after nearly 20 years of not being able to defeat them on the battlefield? I say just walk away. Let the Afghans themselves (and Pakistanis, too, since the Taliban is there as well) deal with them. Hopefully at some point a sufficient number of the local population will decide enough is enough and the Taliban's leaders will end up like Mussolini did at the hands of Italians who had had enough.

    As an outsider, I don't presume to break into my neighbors' homes to take out THEIR garbage, not even after their accumulated garbage has started to stink up the entire street.

  • Azathoth!!||

    If I'm not mistaken, these are the same people who arrested a teenage couple for holding hands (gasp!) in public, and meted out a punishment by gang-raping the boy's older sister, who was NOT EVEN PRESENT at the alleged hand-holding incident! And it wasn't some misogynistic fringe group who did this either, it was the village elders themselves! That's a level of evil that, in mind mind, goes even beyond Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc.

    This is Islam. This is what it looks like when it cannot be questioned, when there is no one stopping it. Note the shame that Saudi Arabia is an 'ally' above.

    But we cannot act on this. We should not speak of this. We must needs to find ways to not even think it.

    Because to do so means heating up the millennium old 'cold war' that we are in--or acquiesce, and lose all that makes us human.

    There will be a reckoning with Islam. We are only postponing it.

  • ||

    I have no beef with anyone who says that the Taliban are nasty pieces of shit. My problem is that it's hard to determine how nasty a piece of shit you have to be before Uncle Sam gets freaky and invady and nation building on your ass.

    Out of all the regimes or dictators that are nasty, eg, Burma, where they are killing or expelling members of a Muslim group, Zimbabwe, where a communist dictator dispossessed thousands of farmers from their land, Uganda (and a number of other African countries) who are victimizing homosexuals up to the death penalty etc, we decided to change the regime in Afghanistan, and later Iraq. As I noted elsewhere in this thread, conservatives have one set of criteria for "regime change", liberals another. Both however have no qualms about invadiding and/or otherwise interfering in the affairs of other sovereign nations so long as they can find a satisfactory justification

    In order to have enough troops to conduct all the "regime changes" that are so devoutly wished by everyone (except me) we would have to mobilize the entire regular army, the reserves and National Guard and on top of that form an American Foreign Legion to import every foreigner who was willing to serve with a promise of citizenship.

    Even then, I don't know if there would be enough manpower.

  • ||

    It strikes me that I have pretty much described what the Roman Empire did to maintain itself through its decline.

  • creech||

    Talking tough to North Korea: "Warmonger"
    Talking nice with Russia: "Treasonous"
    Talking tough to Iran: "Warmonger"
    Talking nice with Taliban: "Treasonous"

  • Bearded Spock||

    In the coming weeks you'll likely see Media interviews on the morning shows featuring wheelchair-bound double-amputee soldiers talking about how Trump is "betraying" our fighting men by wanting to make peace.

  • josh||

    To me it's long overdue. It's actually rather simple too. If the Taliban agrees not to harbor individuals, or provide a base of operations for organizations that actually present a clear and present danger to our country, then we're cool. We could be out in a week. If they have a problem with that, we can stay forever, causing them problems just out of spite.

  • Rick Stewart||

    1) the current 'Taliban' has nothing whatsoever to do with the old 'Taliban,' other than the name,

    2) even the old 'Taliban' (ultimately) tried to give OBL to the Americans, we refused, preferring a military invasion,

    3) the Americans could have eliminated 95% of Al Qaeda at Tora Bora, probably including OBL, but 'people at the top' chose not to, even Wikipedia knows that,

    4) Afghanistan should not be a country, it should be several countries, with each of the 34 provinces voting on which one they wish to be a part of,

    5) the United States should leave my point 4 on a scrap of paper in the Embassy and then get out,

    6) If we wanted to make the best of the 17 years of destruction we have created we could offer each province which runs a fair point 4 election a billion dollars, that's less than we will spend in the next 12 months by sticking around and making ourselves even less popular than we already are.

  • ||

    We" had to get rid of the Taliban and rebuild Afghanistan into a European style social democracy to get our NATO allies and domestic liberals on board for retaliation against everyone involved in the 9/11 attacks. Because everyone knew that the reason we were attacked was because the lower races living there needed a great big dose of western paternalism.

  • ||

    Of course, it didn't help that Bush ii (AKA Woodrow Wilson the second) was a bleeding heart "conservative" along with the neocons who seem to have been the major influence on foreign policy since the beginning of the Clinton administration.

  • Echospinner||

    Just leave. We could have an embassy and spooks, whatever they need but that is it.

    It is over. Afghanistan moved on a long time ago. Time to let it go.

  • 10mm||

    We tried this once in South Asia, about 50 years ago, right?

    I forget, how'd that turn out?

  • ifthenwhy||

    Leave

  • BBerry12||

    The Taliban were not a terrorist organization until we went there to punish them for allowing a real terrorist organization to hold conversations on their territory that led to 9/11. They were part of that brave, determined mujaheddin that we admired so much when they were fighting to throw the Russians out of their country. They didn't give a damn about ideology or geopolitics, they hated Russians because they were there. Now we're there.

    Had we made it known that we were simply going in after al-Qaeda, a simple "punitive expedition" that Jefferson would have understood and approved, the Taliban would probably just stayed out of the way; barbarians hate competition on their home turf. But, no, we were going to take over the whole country, and James Madison was going to rise from the dead, learn Pushtu, and lead Fred and Barney into the 21st century.

    The current "legitimate" Afghan government is weak, corrupt, and deceitful. They serve American security interests no better than the Taliban did. Afghans have amply demonstrated that they are a violent, belligerent people; if they don't wish to be ruled by the Taliban, let them show it by fighting for their own rights. Either way, it's not really our problem.

  • Jayburd||

    I can see the headline now "Whitehouse Chef mistakenly serves Taliban Leaders pulled pork sandwiches on paper plates with cartoons of Mohammad.

  • cynicalretiree||

    If we had done nothing about Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded in 1979,that country might still be chaos.Except thousands of US soldiers would be alive. If we had never bombed Iraq since 1990, the Middle East might still be chaos, but thousands of US soldiers might still be alive.Tragedies like Sept 11, 2001 probably would have remained inside the Middle East.There would be no need for Al Qada, whose roots are the weapons we sent to Pakistani Islamic religious schools, or Taliban, to pursue revenge on US soil.

  • cynicalretiree||

    My friends who returned from the Viet Nam War told me we should never get involved in other countries civil wars.

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