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Forcing The Taliban To The Table

Posted by on September 17th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Unless you're one of the dumber-than-mud fighting keyboardists who insist that all terrorists are cockroaches (and you don't negotiate with cockroaches), you'll have noticed that everyone from General David Petraeus on up has said that there will be no purely military solution in Afghanistan, that reintegration and reconciliation for the Taliban is the only thing that can bring lasting peace there. You'll have also noticed the conventional wisdom that the Taliban say they are too successful to negotiate right now – that the US military's troop Surge(tm) escalation will have to pound on them a while before they're ready to come to the negotiating table. (Which begs the question of what the US military was doing for the previous eight years if not trying to pound on the Taliban until they were a bit more submissive, but nevermind.)

However, Robert Naiman has an interesting and mostly convincing post today in which he claims that the Obama administration hasn't exactly been rushing to the negotiating table either - missing an opportunity to put the Taliban leadership on the spot in a way that would help de-legitimize them in Afghanistan's South. He has a couple of suggestions for action rather than empty rhetoric:

What currently feasible – they could be done this week – Administration policies would be consistent with making national political reconciliation a priority? Here are three.

1. The Obama Administration could signal its willingness to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan – similar to the agreement we now have with Iraq – as part of a peace deal.

There are many ways to signal. It doesn't have to be a formal announcement. A "senior Administration official" could tell a reporter that the Obama Administration is considering this. The British could say it, and the Obama Administration could ostentatiously say nothing. A senior Democratic Senator perceived to be close to the Administration on foreign policy could say it, and the Obama Administration could ostentatiously say nothing.

Obviously, a key objective of the insurgency is to drive foreign forces out of the country. By sending this signal, the Obama Administration would be saying, "You want us out? Fine. Negotiate with us, and we will leave faster."

Note that "the US should establish a timetable for military withdrawal" is already the position of the majority of Americans and 60% of the House Democratic Caucus. So by signaling its willingness to establish a timetable for full military withdrawal as part of a peace deal, the Obama Administration would simply be suggesting its willingness to agree as part of a negotiation to do that which a majority of Americans already want the U.S. to do even if there is no negotiation.

2. The Obama Administration could signal that it is willing to end "night raids" in Afghanistan if serious negotiations commence. Night raids – which indiscriminately kill civilians and violate the sanctity of the Afghan home – are arguably the policy of the U.S. military occupation most hated by Afghan public opinion and the Afghan government, which has long called for them to end, so offering to end them would be a powerful incentive to promote talks.

3. The Obama Administration could signal that it is willing to "downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan" – as called for by the Afghanistan Study Group – to promote negotiations.

Naiman's certainly correct that such proposals would put pressure on the Taliban leadership's rhetoric that they see no need to negotiate while they're winning.

Negotiations surface issues: you have to say what you want, and what you are willing to accept. Right now, no-one, not even a U.S. government official, can clearly articulate what the U.S. really wants in Afghanistan, and what the U.S. is willing to accept. What exactly the Taliban want, or are willing to accept, besides driving out foreign forces, has also been the subject of fierce debate.

The Taliban would be forced to respond somehow or be subject to internal pressures towards factionalization – we already know some Taliban leaders are more amenable to dealmaking than others, because Pakistan's ISI arrested Baradur to stop him making a deal without them - and external pressures from supporters among the populace who are simply tired of all war all the time. As Naiman writes "when true positions begin to be revealed, they become the subject of political debate and political pressure".

I wrote a long time ago that, eventually, you have to talk to terrorists if you want to end the terror war. But first, someone has to be willing to actually start the conversation. That seems to me likely to be more successful in bringing the Taliban to the table for serious purposes than any number of whack-a-mole offensives.

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