Talking With the Taliban

Talking With the Taliban

 Talks are underway, but it’s important to make sure Pakistan is on board.


Reintegration is a complete flop, and it’s clear that reconciliation is the only path to a political solution in Afghanistan.

Reintegration, of course, has for a long while been the Obama administration’s preferred method, involving the winning-over of low- and mid-level Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, often by providing them with some cash, a job, and some sort of half-hearted amnesty. On the other hand, reconciliation is the name for the strategy long supported by the Afghan government, by President Karzai, and more recently by the United States, involving an effort to seek a negotiated deal with the Taliban’s top leadership over some sort of power-sharing formula in Kabul, perhaps with autonomy for various provinces.

Slowly, President Obama is starting to talk about reconciliation more and reintegration less.

Among the more important recent developments, last week the United Nations Security Council took steps to begin the removal of scores of Taliban members from the 1990s-era blacklist that was imposed jointly on the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Now, the UN—with US support, and with the grudging support of Russia, which has opposed removing individual sanctions against Taliban officials in the past—has decided to split the Taliban and Al Qaeda into two distinct lists. That underscores the fact that the two organizations are separate and distinct, and it clears the way to remove some or all of the Taliban from the UN blacklist. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said that the idea behind the move is to “promote reconciliation while isolating extremists,” and she said it will “send a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from Al Qaeda.”

It’s an important step because one way to speed talks between the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban is to create an office—in Qatar, or Turkey—where the Taliban can set up shop without fear of arrest, assassination or travel bans. Karzai is officially seeking the removal of at least nineteen Taliban leaders from the UN blacklist.

Last week, after Obama declared that the Taliban might have a place in Afghanistan’s future, and after ex–Secretary of Defense Gates confirmed that talks with the Taliban are underway, Karzai said that “substantial” talks with the Taliban “have started already [and] are going well.” That they are going well might be an exaggeration, but they’ve happened, with at least three meetings between two US officials, Frank Ruggiero and Jeff W. Hayes, and a Taliban official, Mohammed Tayeb Agha, in Qatar and in Germany.

Here’s how Obama put it in his June 22 speech on the drawdown: “We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” That’s a start. Secretary of State Clinton, who’s in the hawkish camp on Afghanistan, made it clear that she’s holding her nose about talking to the Taliban, calling it “not a pleasant business but a necessary one.” (Frankly, I’d hold my nose, too.) The next day, Clinton put it more harshly: “The choice facing the Taliban is clear: be part of Afghanistan’s future or face unrelenting assault.” Obama, speaking at Fort Drum, New York, after his drawdown speech two days earlier, credited the military’s attack on the Taliban as creating conditions that will bring Mullah Omar and Co. to the bargaining table. Addressing the troops, Obama said: “Because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement.”

Because Pakistan is so closely connected to the Taliban, it’s important for Obama to reject the calls from some quarters to isolate Pakistan, cut off aid to the country or make harsh demands that the Pakistani system won’t bear. Doing so will just drive Pakistan into a corner, strengthen its alliance with both the Taliban and China and make it much harder for the United States to make a deal with the Taliban. A deal with the Taliban will require the full support of Pakistan. Indeed, Mohammed Agha, the Taliban negotiator in recent talks with the United States, was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 and then freed, leading some observers to believe, as the New York Times noted, that he’s acting “with the blessings of the Pakistani authorities.” Even though Pakistan is in cahoots with Islamist militants of all stripes, even though Pakistan may have turned a blind eye to the presence of Osama bin Laden, and even though Pakistan has recently tipped off militants about looming US raids, the United States needs Pakistan for its endgame in Afghanistan.

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