Against the backdrop of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, progressives seem intent on repeating the mistakes that led up to that tragic day.
Last month, John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, returned from a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan to recommend that the Obama administration enter into new talks with the Taliban.
Podesta’s recommendation melds with Obama’s preference for diplomacy with international rogues, but talking to the Taliban has precedent. Between 1995 and 2000, declassified documents show American diplomats met on almost three dozen occasions with the group. The Taliban promised to close terror training camps, but always came up with an excuse not to allow inspections.
Still, diplomats were giddy with the possibility that their dialogue could transform the Taliban. Demonstrating how little the State Department understands the perniciousness of radical Islamist ideology, one diplomat even suggested sending Taliban to Saudi Arabia to learn moderation. Some officials urged American recognition of the Taliban up until 9/11. Demonstrating no failure goes without reward in Washington, one now serves on the National Intelligence Council.
While the press pilloried former Secretary of State Colin Powell for even suggesting incorporating “moderate Taliban” into Afghanistan’s political future, Obama has made an embrace of the Taliban a pillar of his Afghan strategy. “We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence,” the president declared while outlining his Afghanistan strategy two years ago. Marc Grossman, the State Department’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has in practice eliminated even this condition.
Even though diplomacy with the Taliban has repeatedly failed—at the cost of thousands of lives—the State Department has yet to consider lessons learned from their previous negotiations with the Taliban. To do so might let reality get in the way of a policy.
British diplomats learned this the hard way last month: In their enthusiasm to engage, British ambassador William Patey invited the Taliban to an embassy party, even posing for a photograph with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan. The next day, the Taliban repaid the favor by attacking the British Council’s compound, killing eight policemen in the process.
The American military leadership has embraced negotiations with such enthusiasm that they have at times made themselves laughing stocks. In November 2010, the U.S. military facilitated talks with a man claiming to be the Taliban’s second-in-command. In reality, he was reportedly a Pakistani shop-keeper. The cost to American taxpayers? Several hundred thousand dollars.
The deception permeates every level.
Both Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus promoted reconciliation councils as keys to peace. "This is the way you end insurgencies," Petraeus remarked. While Petraeus counts on affirmation by pundits brought to Afghanistan on his dime, every Afghan with whom I spoke disagreed during recent trips to Afghanistan not sponsored by the State Department or Pentagon.
Whether in favor of Taliban reconciliation or opposed, Afghans depicted the reconciliation councils as elaborate failures, meant to satisfy Obama but not end the fighting.
Despite the Taliban’s history, some officials—most prominent among them Bush-era deputy national security advisor Robert Blackwill—suggest cutting a deal to let the Taliban govern certain provinces of Afghanistan in exchange for peace in other regions.
Afghans, however, ridicule the idea as ignorant of both history and culture. The international community repeatedly sponsored ceasefires between the Taliban and their Afghan opponents for six years before 9/11. In 1997, for example, Bill Richardson, at the time a cabinet-level U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, flew to Kabul and announced a breakthrough to bring the Taliban to the table. There followed the civil war’s most brutal fighting. The Taliban accepted each ceasefire, regrouped, and then attacked: This is how the Taliban extended their control from 30 percent of the country to more than 90 percent on the eve of 9/11.
What proponents of dialogue and compromise ignore is the importance of both momentum and culture. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Enabling the Taliban to consolidate its gains brings not stability, but rather wholesale surrender by more moderate factions.
Compromise has other costs. Soft-partition betrays Afghans. While the Afghan Taliban may be Pushtun, not all Pushtun are Taliban. According to e-mails shown to me by an Afghan official, one American ambassador went so far as to rationalize Taliban abuses of women (such as cutting off noses) as simply Pushtun cultural practice. This is nonsense. As one former Karzai advisor told me in October 2010, “Suggesting the Taliban represent Pushtun is akin to saying Pol Pot represents Cambodians.”
Diplomacy can never supplant the importance of military victory. Obama may want to bring the troops home, but the diplomacy-first strategy hampers peace. As the history of drinking tea with the Taliban shows, talk is not only cheap; it is deadly.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.