Recent news stories report that the United States and NATO forces are facilitating talks between the Afghan government and senior Taliban leaders by giving them "safe passage" for meetings in Kabul. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long announced his intention to reach out and "reconcile" with these leaders. In return for the Taliban renouncing Al Qaeda, decommissioning all their weapons and pledging their loyalty to the Afghan constitution, they will be taken off the U.S. target list and provided with jobs as they are reintegrated back into society.
This latest initiative sounds promising and deserves American support. But color me skeptical about whether the Taliban genuinely want to end their fight.
This is not the first time that Karzai has tried to reach out to the Taliban. His previous efforts have all been met with Taliban claims that they would only talk after all foreign troops -- U.S. and NATO forces -- left the country. What may have now changed is that the U.S. surge and ongoing Predator strikes are causing real pain to the Taliban, who may only be playing for time until the winter slows down our operations and they can regroup.
There is another factor at play. It is a truism that no government can hope to win at the negotiating table what it cannot defend on the battlefield. Insurgents need to understand that they cannot defeat or outlast the government's forces or else they have little incentive to come to the negotiating table. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted earlier this year that reconciliation in Afghanistan is only possible "from a position of strength.
The problem is that in his December 2009 West Point speech, President Obama stated that U.S. troops would start coming home in July 2011. By setting this deadline, based not on military conditions on the ground but on U.S. domestic political factors (according to the recent Bob Woodward book), the president has granted important bargaining leverage to the Taliban. With one foot already out the door, we have signaled that we lack the stamina to sustain the fight. So why should the Taliban negotiate?
A related problem is that Karzai's efforts to reconcile with senior-level Taliban has not been well-coordinated with American-led efforts to reintegrate lower-level "dollar-a-day" Taliban foot soldiers. It is possible that the Taliban leaders can control their troops, but the troops may decide to continue the fight until they see what benefits and other promises they will receive for laying down their arms.
Another point. In any negotiation with a fractured opponent, you need to distinguish between those groups who want to reconcile and those who do not. Without the benefit of solid intelligence, it is difficult to judge which of the Taliban may have more limited grievances that the Afghan government can address. After sacking two of his senior intelligence officers earlier this year, it is uncertain whether Kabul has the insight it needs to assess accurately the intentions of those Taliban leaders it will be talking with.
One final point. This past June, CIA Director Leon Panetta confirmed that, "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaeda." Has so much really changed since June?
Mitchell Reiss, is president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland and the author of the just published Open Road E-Riginal ebook, "Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists." For more information, click here.