Way back in September, 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there were few cool heads in the United States, a country bent on bloodthirsty revenge and intent on launching a War on Terror. But some of those cool heads, the few and the isolated, urged that the United States try talking to the Taliban first. The idea was that with the right combination of incentives and threats, and by aligning Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the effort, Washington might have been able to persuade the Taliban to hand over Al Qaeda’s top leadership, including Osama bin Laden. Certainly, Saudi and Pakistani leaders preferred that option. Although the United States tried, halfheartedly, to do so — and was rebuffed by Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader — it never really gave it a shot. Within weeks, war had started.
The idea of talking to the Taliban is back on the table.
People with a memory longer than a few years will recall that in the 1990s, the Taliban appeared to be a Western-friendly outfit, and none other than Zalmay Khalilzad wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post praising the Taliban as moderate. (That would be the same Khalilzad who later became US ambassador to post-Taliban Afghanistan and who has dropped hints about running for president of Afghanistan this year, though his candidacy seems ludicrous and unlikely.)
Over the weekend, President Obama lent his voice to the chorus of US officials who’ve raised the idea that elements of the Taliban might be open to reconciliation. In the full-text transcript of Obama’s interview with the New York Times, Obama was asked if the United States is “winning” in Afghanistan, and he replied: “No.” Here’s the key exchange:
Q. Do you see a time when you might be willing to reach out to more moderate elements of the Taliban, to try to peel them away, towards reconciliation?
A. I don’t want to pre-judge the review that’s currently taking place. If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region. But the situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, so figuring all that out is going to be a much more of a challenge.
Now, let’s leave aside the fact that Obama got the Iraq story exactly backwards. In Iraq, the United States did not reach out to “Islamic fundamentalists” but to mostly secular, often corrupt, and fiercely nationalist Sunni tribal leaders who formed Iraq’s Awakening. Very few of them were even religious, never mind fundamentalists. (In Iraq, the Sunni fundamentalists are part of the Iraqi government, in the form of the Iraqi Islamic Party and its allies, and the IIP was bitterly opposed by the Awakening.) Though it’s worrying that Obama was so wrong about Iraq in that regard, he’s starting down the right path by raising to the presidential level the notion of talking the Taliban.