Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Negotiating with Thugs: Thoughts on Engaging the Taliban

Helena Cobban makes an interesting observation:

So here are Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and SecDef Bob Gates now saying they support– and are giving active support to– the Afghan government’s initiative to negotiate with the Taliban. But the U.S. government continues to completely oppose any attempt by any parties, Palestinian or other, to reach out and deal with the Hamas government that, lest we forget, was democratically elected in Palestine in January 2006.

A confusing policy, it’s true. Why does the Obama administration support negotiations with those who took power by force and are connected to the 9/11 attacks, but reject negotiations with those who were legitimately elected (in January 2006) and have not attacked the US directly?

I’ve made this argument here before: I strongly believe that channels for discussion should always be left open, not used as a stick to punish opponents. While dialogue may not always lead to a solution, closing the door on dialogue will almost certainly not produce a better result. Just think of how ineffective the Bush administration’s efforts were to isolate Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela. By failing to engage with them, Washington had little leverage with which to influence their policies, check their involvement in neighboring countries, discourage their nuclear ambitions, etc. In the case of North Korea and Iran, for example, years of non-engagement left both countries with almost free reign to pursue aggressive nuclear programs. And now look where they are today.

In contrast, consider the effect of our increased engagement with Russia. As I’ve noted before in the context of Georgia, engagement often brings newfound leverage; it can also create new avenues for cooperation. The US is not in such a unipolar position in the world that the mere assertion of our unwillingness to negotiate is a sufficient stick to discourage certain types of behaviors. Of course, engagement doesn’t always work and there are plenty of times in history when negotiations have not served our interests because of how poorly they were conducted (Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961 comes to mind). But that’s not an excuse not to talk; negotiations can be done strategically and in a way that bolster, not undermine, our interests.

In the case of the Taliban, channels of dialogue should continue to be opened. That said, I tend to agree with more pessimistic assessments of what these discussions might accomplish. The Taliban is in a position of strength; they have access to the news and know what’s happening in Washington. Whereas Obama, day by day, is under increasing pressure to withdraw American forces, the Taliban have the benefit of time. Why should they give concessions to an Afghan government who, in just months from now, will be in a much weaker position?

Max Boot, in an interview published on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, makes the kind of argument that strikes me as highly dangerous: that if we only commit more troops, hit them harder, show the Taliban we’re never going to leave, that Taliban leaders will be more likely to cede ground (bad pun, yes) during negotiations with the Kabul government. This is almost certainly wrong. Even if Obama decided to extend our involvement in Afghanistan past July of next year, the Taliban still understand that our occupation cannot last far beyond that. Indeed, his is the exact same kind of argumentation that prolonged the war in Vietnam. When Kissinger took over as National Security Advisor in 1969, he decided that peace offers from the North Vietnamese were not favorable enough because the US was not in a clear position of strength vis-a-vis Hanoi. The subsequent increase in air strikes, typified by the famous Christmas Day Bombing in late 1972, was designed to put the US back in a position of strength. Well, it didn’t work. South Vietnam was still overrun and, in the meantime, tens of thousands of US troops had died.

Like the North Vietnamese, the Taliban can just wait us out. And there is every indication that they are doing just that. But while I am overwhelmingly pessimistic that dialogue with the Taliban will accomplish much, there is little reason not to keep diplomatic avenues open. There’s always a chance that something will come of them.

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  1. I would question how exactly the Taliban were "connected" to 9/11. Yes, they were harboring one (or more)of the key planners, but it's almost certain they knew nothing of the actual attack until after the fact. And their refusal to give up bin Laden after 9/11 probably had more to do with the Pashtunwali code of honor/hospitality than anything else. It was, after all, less than 30 days after the attacks, and at that time few Americans – with access to information, news, and facts – were certain that bin Laden was behind the attacks.

    But your point about the US's unwillingness to negotiate with a democratically elected government (Hamas) is well taken and relevant.

  2. Moshe Dayan once said something like this: If you want peace you talk with your enemies, not to your friends.