Should U.S. be talking with the Taliban?
August 23rd, 2013
11:28 AM ET

Should U.S. be talking with the Taliban?

By Howard Cohen

Editor’s note: Howard Cohen is a Global Public Square intern. The views expressed are his own.

No one relishes the idea of sitting down with the enemy, looking them in the eye and talking – especially when you have spent some $650 billion fighting that war, losing more than 2,000 servicemen in the process. Yet in June, that was exactly what the United States was preparing to do – negotiate with the Taliban. Talks were derailed when the Taliban decided to hang a white flag from their office in Qatar, the same flag used during the group’s rule in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was furious, and halted talks.

But despite a senior Afghan negotiator last week suggesting that talks were unlikely to resume in Qatar, the fact remains that as U.S. forces withdraw from the country, some sort of negotiations seem inevitable. And that raises a troubling question: After a dozen years of fighting, is the U.S. actually negotiating from a position of weakness? And if so, can it hope to extract any meaningful gains?

“You can’t win at the negotiating table what you can’t defend on the battlefield,” says Mitchell B. Reiss, president of Washington College and former director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, who argues that the United States has little leverage because everyone knows that their troops are withdrawing.

“Never [have I] come across a single instance where a government was able to expedite the negotiations to suit its political calendar rather than that of the insurgent or terrorist group,” he says, adding that the Obama administration is trying to rush to the negotiation table without having laid the proper groundwork.

U.S. officials, fearing the country could again become a haven for militants once its forces withdraw, want the Taliban to renounce all ties to al Qaeda. It would also like the Taliban to accept the Afghan constitution, which came into effect in 2004, and lay down its arms. But even if the Taliban were willing to acquiesce to these demands, it would be impossible to ensure that they kept their word once U.S. forces have moved on.

Still, the U.S. may have no choice but to try. As Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for the New York Times, noted to me, Obama and Karzai both want – and need – a political settlement that is “resilient and enduring.” And the only way that this can be achieved without continued ongoing fighting is by including the Taliban. As Schmitt argues, whether the U.S. likes it or not, the Taliban is in control of parts of Afghanistan, so including them in any peace process is necessary.

First, of course, negotiations have to actually begin, and with this in mind the U.S. has already indicated that it is willing to make concessions to make them happen. But Washington has been reluctant to engage in the kind of hostage exchanges eyed by the Taliban, in large part out of fears that it would simply encourage more hostage taking. Of course, with U.S. forces withdrawing, this becomes far less likely. The question is whether the Obama administration will be willing to compromise on prisoner releases even as fears persist that former prisoners might rejoin the fray elsewhere.

But the issue of negotiating prisoner releases aside, there is another problem confronting the United States – who should it negotiate with? For example, if the U.S. manages to extract a concession from one Taliban faction, there is no guarantee that this will be binding with other groups. This suggests that even if the U.S. and the Karzai administration sit down with the Mullah Omar-led Taliban and reach some kind of negotiated settlement, there is a chance that other factions like the Haqqanis continue an insurgency. Such challenges were evident as the British government finally sat down with the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, only to see a group known as the Real IRA emerge to continue attacks.

And the fact is that the United States has been duped before in negotiations. As Reiss notes, in 2010, the U.S., its NATO allies, and the Afghan government reportedly spoke with an individual claiming to be Mullah Omar's second in command. Indeed, the U.S. went as far as transferring funds to him, only to find that he was “a Pakistani convenience store owner with a beard.”

Yet despite the U.S. entering negotiations with what some see as little leverage, and the risk that it might make concessions that ultimately yield no results, the Taliban appears to hold the key to relative stability.

Reiss argues that the administration is trying to “pull a rabbit out its hat” by negotiating. Unfortunately, the Obama administration really may need to know a bit of magic to make these negotiations genuinely fruitful.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Taliban • United States

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. ellfin

    While a successful negotiation today (if it were even possible) might bring stability today. History has shown that a future generation will likely pay a high price in years to come.

    August 23, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It looked as if there was going to be a historic breakthrough in talks with the Afghan Taliban last June in Qatar. Yet they came almost unstuck over a flag and a sign.

      August 25, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Hamid Karzai protested and John Kerry had the white Taliban flag and their sign reading "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" were removed from their new office in Qatar.

        August 25, 2013 at 10:31 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Karzai was paranoid that the Taliban office would be used as base for a "government in waiting" to raise its profile and its fund raising. Furthermore he spoke about his worst fears that the Taliban, and his ally, the US were colluding behind his back.

        August 25, 2013 at 10:33 am |
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      September 27, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  2. George patton

    Of course the U.S. should be talking with the Taliban. Only a stupid, crazy Tea Partying fool would say otherwise. Then again, there are a lot of people in both Washington and London who are making a great deal of money out of this obnoxious war who would rather not see it end anytime soon!

    August 23, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  3. Phelix Unger

    Yes they should talk to them, they should drones though so they can hear the sound of someone making up their mind for them.

    By the way, have you seen my other sock?

    PMSOTB

    August 24, 2013 at 12:57 am | Reply
    • George patton

      Thanks, Phelix. Such is to be expected from someone like you with your obvious limitations! Then again, I suspect that you're just trying to be funny here. Too bad that a lot of guys who lost their limbs and legs in this obnoxious war can't laugh with you, let alone the people living in that country who suffered immeasurably more!!! I bet that you never saw the true horrors of war yourself or you wouldn't be joking like this!

      August 24, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • Phelix Unger

      Sorry people, I didn't post that stupid statement above and as the true Phelix Unger here, I do not deem this obscene war to be any kind of a joke! I bet that the same creep who has been trolling George patton is now trolling me, too.

      August 24, 2013 at 9:26 am | Reply
  4. sand

    usa should go home go and help greece thats a country with 27,6% unemployment spain also spain is full of human suffering usa should go and help them and ireland also usa should go and help those potato farmers from dublin.

    August 24, 2013 at 9:04 am | Reply
    • Phelix Unger

      A far better idea sand, is to have Greece leave the Eurozone, go back to using the drachma and seek help from Russia and China rather than the West. The whole idea of the Eurozone is just plain stupid!

      August 24, 2013 at 9:29 am | Reply
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    August 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply

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    August 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply

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    WILL YOU DO WHEN YOU DO THIS TO YOUR CHILDREN.

    INFORMANT INTERVIEWS – MENTAL Torturers – STUDIES OF THE HUMAN RACE WITH ALL AGENCIES OF COUNTRIES THAT

    ARE NOT DEMOCRATIC STATE – WHY, JUST FOR BUSINESS – PUSHING THE VENEZUELAN irradiating DEMENTIA A WHILE

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    NEW PAGE FOR SERIAL CRIMINALS THAT WE HAVE COMPLAINED OF COUNTRIES PAGE SUSPENDED.

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    .
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    August 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    WORLD HEALTH PROBLEM.

    WE HAVE TO MAKE AN INVESTIGATION IN ALL DRUGS.

    WILL YOU DO WHEN YOU DO THIS TO YOUR CHILDREN.

    INFORMANT INTERVIEWS – MENTAL Torturers – STUDIES OF THE HUMAN RACE WITH ALL AGENCIES OF COUNTRIES THAT

    ARE NOT DEMOCRATIC STATE – WHY, JUST FOR BUSINESS – PUSHING THE VENEZUELAN irradiating DEMENTIA A WHILE

    AND TELEVISION PROGRAMS DO TO PEOPLE THAT HANDLED CREATE THAT ARE HANDLING IS ONLY A MATTER OF

    SCIENCE FICTION CUNADO MILLION CASES HAVE CEREBRAL DESTRUCTION.

    NEW PAGE FOR SERIAL CRIMINALS THAT WE HAVE COMPLAINED OF COUNTRIES PAGE SUSPENDED.

    THE REASON THE CONTENT IS REALITY.

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    August 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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  7. dmf

    At the very outset if and when serious negotiations with out any preconditions begin between U. S and Taliban forces resisting occupation of Afghanistan that makes a ) The U. S. NATO forces including and the locally trained security forces are unwilling and unable to continue the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan ( 2001 – to date ) and wiling to negotiate term for an honorable withdrawal of forces . There is an exemplary precedence of Vietnam War, and other armed conflicts in the past . If we look back in history , those were not so bad and troubling end of bargain for peace than a prolonged war for decades with huge toll of loss in human lives , economic turmoil and other disasters created by Wars .

    August 25, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  8. shahjahanbhatti

    Roman Empire fell because its rulers made mistakes. USA will cease to exists if its rulers make foolish policies.

    August 26, 2013 at 2:35 am | Reply
    • Quinton

      How true that is! This country will be brought down by these good for nothing right-wingers in Washington!

      August 26, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  9. Colin Wright

    Not only should we not be talking to the Taliban, but we shouldn't be in Afghanistan at all.

    Being in Afghanistan is a stupid test. The test is how long it takes you to realize it was a mistake to go in. It's getting to be ten years for us. So far, we fail.

    August 26, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  10. jerry

    USA are helping Syria "oposition" Egypt "oposition" why not Taliban. These sre the same terrorists with different names. Help and fight them later this is US idea of common sense.

    August 27, 2013 at 7:30 am | Reply
  11. You Know

    Negotiating/talking with terrorist? What will be the agenda? Human rights, women rights, girls education giving up arms or USA face saving.

    August 27, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
  12. jerry

    Why not USA used to be Taliban's friend.

    August 28, 2013 at 7:44 am | Reply

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