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.