June 22nd, 2011
11:45 AM ET

America must negotiate with the Taliban

Editor's Note: Stephen Biddle is the Robert Hertog senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the award-winning author of Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. The following is a transcript of our discussion.

Amar C. Bakshi: What will you be looking for in President Obama’s speech?

Stephen Biddle: I’ll be looking mainly for the strategic logic to connect the troop count to the conduct of the war in a way that will secure U.S. interests. The debate over drawdowns in Afghanistan in the U.S. is usually all about numbers and not very much about strategy, so what I’d like to see is what the strategic rationale is for drawing down.

My main point is that these numbers should be arrived at because they enable something on the ground in Afghanistan that we need to do.

It was rumored in the press today that Petraeus had recommended a 30,000-soldier withdrawal by the end of 2012, but back loaded substantially. If that is in fact what Petraeus recommended, then what the President will do if he does announce 10,000 out this year, the rest by the end of 2012, is he’ll be splitting the difference between some of the most cautious proposals like Senator McCain’s and some of the more aggressive proposals. That would be similar to the way he responded to General McChrystal’s recommendations back in 2009.

What do you think U.S. strategy ought to be in Afghanistan?

I would come at it in the following way: There is a trade space that connects three different pieces of our policy in Afghanistan - how many troops in theater, how long a war we want, and what political outcome we want to create at the end.

Because these things relate to one another, if you are required because you made a promise to the American people to withdraw some troops (as is the case for President Obama after the West Point speech in 2009), you’re going to have to accept either a longer war or a reduction in the ambition of the outcome we produce.

The physics of this war mean that you can’t simultaneously have big troop reductions, a short war, and achieve all of your objectives.

So what the political leadership of the country needs to do is decide what minimum objective they can tolerate and then figure out how long a war they’re willing to tolerate and that should imply how many troops you then need.

What would you recommend as war aims?

The war aims that the Bush Administration had in Afghanistan was more ambitious than what U.S. national security requires. They wanted a highly centralized, administratively modern Afghan state with no legitimate, political role for the Taliban at all. I don’t think we require that.

I think our fundamental security interests in Afghanistan are that the country not become a base for terrorists to attack us or our allies and that the country not become a base for destabilizing its neighbors and especially Pakistan. Those are the two interests the President has articulated for Afghanistan. The second is the more important of the two.

Neither require the end state that the Bush Administration was aiming at. We could accept a substantially less centralized Afghan state and we could accept some legitimate legal and political role for the Taliban in the governance of that less-centralized state as long as we assure that Afghan territory is not used to destabilize Pakistan or attack us.

By reducing the ambition of the war aim quite a bit, I would then also open up the duration quite a bit and allow a smaller troop presence to stay in the country much longer and accept that less ambitious end state. If you do those things, you create a match up between your ends and your means that provides a reasonable likelihood of securing the ends you’re after.

How important is negotiating with the Taliban?

I think it’s very important. At some level, any imaginable, acceptable end to this war will be through some sort of negotiation. The war is not going to end successfully because the last Taliban guerilla dies of arterial sclerosis in a cave somewhere.

Somehow or another there is going to be some sort of agreement in which the Taliban lays down its arms in exchange for something. What the war is really about is what the something is. What are the terms of whatever agreement produces an end to the fighting?

In a sense, what those who advocate a forceful conduct of the war are saying is they want the terms of the eventually settlement to be extremely favorable to us and involve very few concessions to them - something so close that the settlement looks more like a surrender instrument rather than a compromise.

Either way, unless you kill every last Taliban, which very few people are really talking about, you’re talking about some kind of deal – just one that may be very favorable to one side or the other side. Therefore figuring out the negotiation process so you get a settlement you can live with sooner rather than later strikes me as very important indeed.


soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Lejaune

    We can negotiate with them if we don't brand them a terrorist organization. That should not be too difficult.

    June 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Lionel Mandrake

      Heck we should invite them for dinner.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
      • Lionel Mandrake

        and talk over a piece of apple pie.

        April 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  2. Alexander

    "...All we we want is for the Talibutts to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and not give them sanctuary. That's it..." -
    the problem with this view is that now you would explain to American People what was the point of the 10-year war.
    To kill bin Laden? You could physically kill bin Laden back in 2001 solely by negotiating withTaliban.

    Let me remind you few facts, in case if you have forgotten.

    In October 2001 bin Laden was under HOUSE ARREST by Taliban. He started having problems with Taliban back in 1998. Remember Kenia-Tanzania bombings? Bin Laden issued fatwa on a videotape. Taliban told him to shut up, which he eventually did for a couple years at least. What Taliban wanted back then? International recognition as legitimate government of Afghanistan. Which they were denied on numerous occasions.

    Bin Laden was often viewed as terrorist #1, but in reality he is primary a businessman, builder. Terrorism is just a hobby for him. Addicting hobby, but still just a hobby. He brought money into Afghanistan and, believe or not, completed few construction projects. And this is during the time - late 199x to 2001 - when nobody, repeat nobody, have invested a dime into Afghani economy. Around that time bin Laden also became a naturalized citizen of Afghanistan (previously he was a "guest" of Taliban).

    Then in October (1 or so) 2001 US issued an very bold-worded Ultimatum to Taliban "give us bin Laden or else".
    The problem is that bin Laden himself denied having anything to do with Sept. 11: he just expressed admiration to
    "brave people" whoever did it. And US presented NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that it was bin Laden who
    organized it. Taliban demanded such evidence, saying that they will try bin Laden in their own court. Besides,
    Islamic Laws (to which Taliban strictly adheres) explicitly forbid to give a muslim into non-muslim hands. So extradiction
    is not an option, but quick and fair trial with a fair, thought a bit inhumane and non-civilized from European point of view
    punishment, was on the table. US knew all that. US did not want it at that time. US wanted war. US reiterated the
    Ultimatum and started war.

    Now, after 10 years: US/NATO withdraws. Taliban back in. Civil war again. Taliban (i.e., pashtuns) vividly remember well the slaughter of fellow pashtuns committed by troops of Gen. Abdul-Rashid Dostum (uzbek) in cargo containers back at the end of 2001. This will be brutally revenged. Tadzhiks will be probably hold Panj Valey. And the whole situation return back to the status of the beginning of 2001. Status ante bellum. ...sounds like the whole war is plain waste of time.

    June 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  3. Joe Green

    According to Psalm 83 all of Israel's next door neighbors will unite in an effort to wipe Israel completely off the map. But Israel will soundly defeat them and capture their lands as well. Enemies like Hezbollah, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Hamas, etc. will cease to exist, and the lands they now occupy will once again belong to Israel. (Many people don't realize that even the land of Lebanon was originally given to Israel and will belong to Israel again in the Millennium.)
    http://www.youtube.com/user/stealthblack6?feature=mhee

    June 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • I'Sheet M'Drurz

      Ja! Right!

      June 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Dean

      Books of fairy tales do not reflect reality.

      June 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  4. Jeff

    You cannot negotiate with crazy. There is nothing the least bit rational about these people and there is absolutely nothing to be gained from sitting across a table from them. They understand one thing and one thing only – power. They don't need to be negotiated with; they need to be put down like the rabid animals they are.

    June 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  5. total nonsense

    you don't negociate with terrorist you exterminate them......

    Not all mulsims are terrorists, but most terrorists are muslims.....PROFILING is a good thing

    June 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  6. I'Sheet M'Drurz

    The US must negotiate with the Taliban afterall the US lost the war.

    June 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  7. David

    Negotiating with the taliban is like negotiating with a drunk or a psychotic. There is no way the taliban will ever live up to any promise made. (a lot like obummer) They are simply dragging things out, just like iran did with their nuclear bomb ambitions.

    June 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Dean

    Of course we should. You don't negotiate with your friends.

    June 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  9. MC

    I like the US stance of not negotiating with terrorists. Look at what happened with the Spanish in Iraq after they had "their 9/11". The terrorists wanted Spain out of the war and the terrorists won. Plus, do you think you can trust anyone who will blow up women and children? Please.

    June 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  10. craig sanes

    America must negotiate with the Taliban only in so far as both may have some realization as to what their long terms goals, seperate and mutual, are.

    For the Taliban's end there have been multivarious takes offered as to their role: from religous and infrastructural, to securitization and trade. At the outset we would do well to reconsider what their long term goals could even be in a such a highly centralized country that almost seems dubious to even be called a nation. To punctuate that perspective many of the residence of the area have been refering to Karzai as the ' Mayor of kabul '. Would they, the Taliban, resume their 90's role as an illicit, yet very lucrative for many within the region, trade route restorer and security force? Indeed, the adjudication process outside of tribal settlements were handled with a modicum of officiency by them. When the last 2 jews in Kabul had a property despute over a synogogue ( yes there is a synogogue in Kabul) the Taliban adjudicated the precedings, and found for the defendant. Their decision was that the original owner and consistant superintendant of the synogogue would retain title, citing more legitimate claim.

    There are other factors as well, suffice it to say it is more than arguable that under that regime, they actually had greater influence and more control over both Kabul and the periphery than either the Soviet Union in their time or the U.S, today.. But then, given the very high level of U.S. investment in the country, as well as within the region, ( as I am sure the Taliban are aware) they can be assured that there will be a long lasting coalition prescence indefinitely. So then, if we are talking compromises, perhaps any joint union would be built on agreements of containment, respect of regional tarrifs..( this was a problem that overwhelmed Pakistan in the 90's), and, of course, FULL commitment to denial of all support for Al Qeida and other antiwestern militant activity. And I think the Taliban could live with that. There main concerns are export and control of Kabul. their more profitable ventures tend to have been illicit and moving right through and beyond their neighbors yards like a subtle breeze leaving little more than some pocket money for middlemen, along the way, and, for which, we historically have tended to turn a blind eye to when it was neither too overwhelmingly costly to deal with nor too politically caustic. The overhead of the Taliban is not high, and the war on illicit trade, namely opiates, can and should be centric on the purchase end of these relationships. Should the demand for 'problem' goods go down, they will move onto other ventures. Looking at recent renovated approaches towards eliminating drug trafficing in South America, removal of incentive seems to have had highly positive effects. The major cartels are opperating out of mexico, now, as Columbia and Peru, among others, are but a shadow of their former reputations as major narcotics producers. Our politically unpopular view of the Taliban based on human rights, a more than fair one, may be overshadowed by the reality of both their longevity and tenacity. Not to mention, they have a, all be it archaic, reputation for maintaining a stable social and political environment.

    And for our end that may be a welcome turn around from our existing relations with karzai, who, while seemingly effective for the continued support of our national security policies in Afghanistan, ultimately, has become too expensive, and wholey ineffective in even creating the pretense of establishing an extended and influencial national government, which is the role for which he must maintain legitimacy for in conducting regional negotiations while under the coalitions umbrella.. We even said it ourselves ' for Afghanistan not to fall back into the conditions where it threatened the security of Pakistan and the region, becoming, again, a place of sanctuary for militant factions, the Afghan army ( as oppossed to the government ) will have to be strong... there not.

    To boot, if our interests with supporting Karzai was for the continued legitimization of U.S. presence while supporting growing commercial endeveours, we may have been making the wrong lease agreement with the wrong person the entire time. I am not trying to cast a dark economic cloud of money wins and human rights advocacy fails in the end with regards to Afghanistan, but, lets face it, the country is being invaided by every private security and mining organization out there. And no one seems to want to put an end to that, just to get in on it, From Taliban strongholds in and out of Kabul, to technocratic enclaves in universities waiting to modernize the country ahead of government reformation, all the way to the territories of mountan Pashtun fiefdoms, all seem to see the potential profits and development on the table before ever having taken a glimpse at their own constitution; a document, by the way, that reads more like a mercentile agreement than a doctrine in support of democratic institutions and individual liberties.

    Given the overall environment and hubris of very deliniated factions within the country, maybe then it is the Taliban that could in the future provide the necessary securitization, as it had done before, for at least a strong trade regime to be established. And there concessions will no doubt fall back to at least some form of theocratic rule. We may help them dress it up like a democracy a bit; put some shared, yet vauge, human rights standards upon to keep it pretty. But in the end it would be very likely that we would be left with a 2 tiered sysem of of vast mining conracts dotting a periphery of diverging territories all under one theocracy that adjudicates and provides security, and little else. Will it be a rainy day for individual rights?

    Which leaves us with Democracy. O.k., Democracy is a metropolitan ideology. And, moreover, it is one that requires some modicum of multilateral ties with peripheral communities. For all practical purposes, Kabul is a city-state, and the peripphery a funnel bringing all things towards it. Centralized representation for individuals and entities is no more required out there in the mountainous desert than it is necessary for Karzai to be present at the capital, now. Indeed, it has historically been deemed the other way around, that if you want clout and prosperity in Kabul you better be in tight with the mountain tribes, as it is they that provide the warm bodies that secure rule. But more importantly, for sheer lack of ideological conflict within this paradigm; among those people, there is no real emphisis for reform. On occasion protest will come in the form of a disgruntled, and rightly so, Aghan police officer and soldier. But that is under the current environment of constant conflict. Outside of that would he be seen by most as being nothing more than an Americaphile and ambitious loner? I would encourage any and all negative feedback on that one, for the latter is as much an assumption as an educated guess. I'm not there, and an Afghani officer working in coordination with our military may very well see himself as among the vangaurd of those trying to provide his country with a better future. It would surprise me none in the least.

    but the proof is in the pudding. Since 1916, with the British, through the Soviet era and unto the present with our stay, we have, overall, been ineffective. The reason above all, perhaps, is that not we nor anyone possess the neccessary resources it would take to bring the country into our fold. Afghanistan is big, and Afghanistan is a whole lot of empty. It's difficult to modernize or even establish infrastructure without sufficient outlying communities to build off of. Tribesmen, Taliban and tradesmen show up pretty much on horseback when the time seems neccessary and the opportunity seems fitting.

    American efforts in Afghanistan have long to go before being able to establish secure relations with the people of that country. I think it can be said by now that we have had a wholey inadequate approach. As for the Taliban, their approach could probably not be any different than what it has been. If they are going to evolve their views of individual liberties it is not going to be us who will force them. They are not empowered in the ways we are to develop stronger, more modeled and universal relations policies with others. In the end, it will have to be our foreign policy that will have to be given radical adjustments to if we are ever going to breach this barrier. Else, those who seek to create a more dynamic infrastructure than a 'funnel' into Kabul, are going to find themselves increasingly fed up, until they give up, too.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  11. Judith

    Oh really. Several days later and we can see that there is NO negotiation with the Taliban:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13947169

    June 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
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