President Hamid Karzai's recent statement that the United States was in secret negotiations with the Taliban came as no great surprise to many close observers of Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been signaling publicly for over two years its intention to engage the Taliban. Only a few months in after he took the oath of office, President Obama announced in March 2009 his hope that the United States could meet face-to-face with the insurgents. Senior officials and military generals have said much the same thing.
The Obama team understands, correctly, that persuading the Taliban to lay down their arms, renounce violence and support the Afghan constitution is the best way for the United States to make an honorable exit from the war and leave behind a relatively stable Afghanistan.
Yet the policies the Obama administration has pursued, and chosen not to pursue, have undermined its chances of successfully engaging the Taliban. They have not linked the preferred end state with the means necessary to achieve it. They have not generated sufficient leverage for the Taliban to agree to end the conflict.
American troops have been outstanding in Afghanistan, but the war will not be ended by the United States killing or capturing all of the Taliban. The ability to sustain a "clear, hold and build" strategy requires competent local security and a functioning government that can effectively deliver services at the provincial and village levels. Only the Afghans can do this. Yet these efforts have been systematically handicapped by the endemic corruption of the Karzai government, its insistence on centralizing all power in Kabul, and its inability to design and implement a program that will reintegrate Taliban fighters into Afghan society. If the Obama Administration cannot exert leverage over the Karzai government to get it to change its ways, how can it hope to exert leverage over the Taliban?
Perhaps the greatest strategic error by the President has been his coupling of the surge with the announcement that he would start pulling US troops out of the country by July 2011 and that all troops would come home by 2014. The Afghan Taliban have been fighting US forces for a decade; many of them also fought the Soviet Union for years. Just when it appears that the United States and all NATO forces are heading for the exits, why would they now decide to compromise their goals by entering into a negotiated settlement?
It is also unclear whether or not Obama's team is talking to the right people. Like all insurgencies, the Taliban is not monolithic; it has internal rivalries and factions that have different and sometimes competing objectives. Here are just some of the questions that need answers:
- Which group of Taliban is the United States talking to?
- How representative are they of the Taliban as a whole?
- Do they have the authority to bargain and make a deal?
- Can they deliver at least a majority of the Taliban leadership and foot soldiers?
- Do they genuinely want to end the war or are they just playing for time, arguing that the United States needs to lessen the intensity of the fighting (and loosen U.N. financial sanctions, as occurred this past week) if we want the negotiations to succeed?
And, also worrisome, some fighters may not be Taliban at all, but "accidental guerrillas" (to use David Kilcullen's phrase) taking up arms to uphold family honor or avenge some other localized grievance.
Then there's this scenario: Perhaps our interlocutors are just happy to take our money, as happened earlier this year when a Taliban "representative" claimed to be the #2 to Mullah Omar but in reality was only an imaginative and enterprising Pakistani convenience store owner.
In short, is American intelligence good enough to peer inside the Taliban and understand who, precisely, is sitting across the negotiating table from us? If not, then we are flying blind.
Finally, the Obama administration is engaging in wishful thinking if it believes that talking to the Taliban will yield results in the near term.
A review of previous negotiations between governments and insurgencies has shown that these types of engagements can succeed, but that success takes far longer than originally anticipated. Moving from covert contacts to a public, formal diplomatic process usually takes many years.
In Northern Ireland -- for many the gold standard of successful conflict resolution -- it took the British government well over two decades to get the IRA into a formal diplomatic process and then another nine years after the Good Friday Agreement before the "Troubles" were truly ended.
Similarly, it took the Spanish government fifteen years before it could even start a sustained negotiation with the Basque separatists, ETA.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers repeatedly used talks with the government as time outs to regroup and rearm, never seriously embracing the idea of peaceful resolving the conflict.
Obama's hope for a quick deal with the Taliban is thus not a realistic policy. His timetable is not the same as theirs.
Every American wants to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible. But the Obama administration's continued deference to the Karzai regime's pathologies and a hasty draw down of U.S. forces will limit our leverage over the Taliban and extend the war.
Mitchell B. Reiss is president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and the author of "Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists," published in September 2010 as an e-book by Open Road Integrated Media.