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.
To be sure, "the Taliban" is a very complex phenomenon. The insurgency in Afghanistan includes the Taliban, a neo-Taliban movement, scores of tribal, subtribal, and clan leaders who are variously allied with or subservient to the Taliban, local mafias, criminal gangs, warlords, and others. Mostly Pashtun, it is a movement that definitely can be talked to. President Karzai has openly discussed talking to everyone from Mullah Omar to local pro-Taliban chieftains and commanders, and for at least two years -- and possibly longer -- he's been engaged in direct contacts. The highest profile such contacts came late last year, when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted a dialogue involving former Taliban leaders, Karzai's brother, and Nawaz Sharif, a top politician in Pakistan. According to my sources, members of the Taliban's inner shura ("council") from Quetta, Pakistan, took part in the talks.
Karzai immediately endorsed Obama's call for talks, even though various analysts pooh-poohed the idea of negotiations, including Afghan opposition figures. (It's important to note that many opposition figures in Afghanistan come from the non-Pashtun, former Northern Alliance, while Karzai stems from a prominent Pashtun family. The Taliban is overwhelmingly Pashtun, and ethnic Pashtuns make up half of Afghanistan's population.)
Critics argue (1) that Karzai's offers to talk to the Taliban have produced nothing, and (2) that the Taliban won't negotiate seriously as long as it believes it is winning. Well. Perhaps if the United States explicitly endorsed Karzai's effort to talk to the Taliban, and worked closely with Saudi and Pakistani officials to move them along, it might help things. It might not produce immediate results, but what's the hurry? It isn't as if the Taliban-led insurgency is about to conquer Kabul and defeat the occupation.
As for the argument that the Taliban won't talk as long as it's winning, that's a proposition that has yet to be tested.
It's possible that Obama's ongoing review, set to be completed this month, will call for stepped-up negotiations. The fact that the State Department and Richard Holbrooke, have involved people like Vali Nasr and Barnett Rubin in the process is a good sign. According to one report, Rubin has been given the portfolio of dealing with the Taliban:
The architect of Mr Obama's "smarter policy" is Richard Holbrooke, a former US envoy to the United Nations who has appointed Afghan policy expert Barnett Rubin to co-ordinate an approach to the Taliban.
In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in December, Mr Rubin proposed a "grand bargain" in which NATO would end military action if the Taliban agreed "to prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism". Such an agreement would "constitute a strategic defeat for al-Qaeda", he wrote.
Of course, many of Obama's advisers believe that first we have to batter the insurgency militarily, secure certain provinces south and east of Kabul, and then talk. And when Obama's military advisers speak about "talking" to the Taliban, they mean talking to low-level, local leaders at the grassroots level, village by village. And they propose doing so against the backdrop of an escalating military confrontation. More likely than not, a heavier US footprint in Afghanistan's tribal regions will help recruit fighters for the Taliban and inflame ethnic Pashtun nationalism.
Make no mistake. The Taliban are an ugly phenomenon. They are despised in Afghanistan, with upwards of 90 percent of Afghans viewing them with disdain. But it's precisely that weakness, not the Taliban's alleged strength, that must be exploited. The process of talking to them will be ugly, too, as shown by Pakistan's recent accord in the Swat Valley, a settled (i.e., non-tribal) area in the Northwest Frontier Province, where Pakistan made a deal with a local fundamentalist cleric whose son-in-law operates as an ally of the Taliban. Various US officials have condemned the Swat arrangement, but I'd say that we're likely to be doing the same thing in Afghanistan, sooner rather than later, if there's an exit strategy at all.