Talking to the Taliban is in America’s Interest

January 19, 2012

At tonight’s debate GOP debate in South Carolina, Mitt Romney will have another chance to explain his thoughts about how to manage the war in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, Romney disagreed with the opinions of his own advisors by saying, “The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban.” Such an attitude runs counter to a bipartisan consensus that says the conflict won’t end by military means alone—a consensus also agrees that talks should not be made into a “political football in the coming election season.” While no one argues that talking with the Taliban will create easy solutions, the last two weeks have seen positive developments that have breathed new life into the process after years of work by the Obama administration. But the whole process could be derailed again if conservatives and Congress engage in fear-mongering and misinformation over any possible transfer of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

Mitt Romney’s advisors agree with talks—even if Romney doesn’t. As David Ignatius of the Washington Post writes: “Memo to Mitt Romney: Before blasting the Obama administration for its peace talks with the Taliban, make sure your own advisers haven’t advocated a similar policy of negotiation.” Ignatius wrote in response to Romney’s comment that: “The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers. The right course is to recognize they’re the enemy of the United States.”

Those comments go against the advice of Romney’s own advisors. Ignatius continues: “But wait a minute, governor. The aide the questioner was referring to was Mitchell Reiss, who wrote a book called ‘Negotiating With Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists,’ which explores precisely the sort of negotiations the Obama administration has begun with the Taliban… The Romney team’s interest in peace negotiations with the Taliban goes deeper than that. The co-chair of Romney’s working group on Afghanistan and Pakistan is James Shinn, a former Pentagon official, according to that same October press release. Last year, Shinn wrote a report for the Rand Corp. titled ‘Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer,’ co-authored with James Dobbins, a former State Department official. Shinn’s report argues that ‘peace negotiations would obviously be desirable if they could succeed’ in getting the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda ‘and end its insurgency in exchange for some role in Afghan governance short of total control.’ That’s a pretty good summary of the policy that Obama is pursuing. But Shinn goes even further than that, arguing that the talks are worth it even if they fail, because the risks of participation are greater for the Taliban than for the United States.” [David Ignatius, 1/17/12]

Bipartisan consensus agrees: Time to talk with the Taliban.

Stephen Hadley, former national security advisor to President George W. Bush, and John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. “This effort [to talk with the Taliban] should not become a political football in the coming election season — it needs strong bipartisan support here at home. U.S. political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, and our military commanders, have consistently argued that the conflict in Afghanistan will not end by military means alone. The elimination of al Qaeda’s safe havens and the establishment of long-term peace and security in Afghanistan and the region — the key U.S. national security objectives — is best assured by a sustainable political settlement that strengthens the Afghan state… Efforts to reach a settlement should include an approach to Taliban elements that are ready to give up the fight and become part of the political process. Such an approach would not — as some have suggested — constitute ‘surrender’ to America’s enemies. Rather, convincing combatants to leave the insurgency and enter into the political process is the hallmark of a successful counterinsurgency effort.” [Stephen Hadley and John Podesta, 1/18/12]

James Shinn, an author of the Bush administration Afghan Strategy Review and current Romney advisor, and Ambassador James Dobbins, former Bush administration special envoy for Afghanistan. “Negotiation does not represent an easy or early path out of Afghanistan for the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, but it is the only way in which this war is likely to end in a long-term peace.” [James Shinn and James Dobbins, 2011]

Lakhdar Brahimi, former United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, and Thomas R. Pickering, former ambassador and under secretary of state. “The stalemate can be resolved only with a negotiated political settlement involving President Hamid Karzai’s government and its allies, the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan, and other regional and international parties. The United States has been holding back from direct negotiations, hoping the ground war will shift decisively in its favor. But we believe the best moment to start the process toward reconciliation is now, while force levels are near their peak.” [Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas Pickering, 3/22/11]

Robert Gates, former defense secretary for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most of the wars end.” [Robert Gates via the NY Times, 6/19/11]

Michael Semple, fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “Without giving peace a chance, any gains that Afghanistan or the United States might have made after a decade of intervention are unlikely to last. Considering even the most significant risks, it would still be better to move forward cautiously than to not engage at all.” [Michael Semple, 1/9/12]

Talks won’t be easy, but it’s the best course of action and showing early positive signs. No one argues talks will create an easy end to the war in Afghanistan. As New America Foundation President and Afghanistan expert Steve Coll has written, “[E]ven under the best of circumstances, an Afghan peace process would most likely mirror the present character of the war: a slow, complicated, and deathly grind, atomized and menaced by interference from neighboring governments—not just Pakistan’s but also those of Iran, India, Russia, Uzbekistan, and China.” Indeed, over the last year talks have already seen predictable ups and downs, including false starts with Taliban representatives and assassinations. But recent news is trending in the right direction. As The New York Times reported last week, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman and other administration officials “were caught by surprise when the Taliban announced last week that they were prepared to take an important step by opening a political office in Qatar.” And today, the Wall Street Journal reports that low-level Taliban commanders have expressed willingness to engage in talks: “Taliban field commanders in several volatile Afghan provinces said in interviews that they are largely supportive of their leadership’s decision to open talks with the U.S., but cautioned that some of their fellow militants might reject any peace deal. The Taliban for the first time acknowledged this month that they are negotiating with the U.S., raising hopes that the 10-year-old war may end with a political settlement.” [Steve Coll, 2/28/11. NY Times, 1/11/12. WSJ, 1/19/12]

Political fear-mongering and misinformation around Guantanamo could derail process. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports, “[T]he stalemated politics of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility risk effectively killing the negotiations before they even have the chance to end the war. The Taliban leadership has evidently decided it wants to talk peace terms. Among the things it wants as a gesture of good faith from its U.S. adversaries: the release of five detainees from Guantanamo. Provisions in the defense bill recently signed into law by President Obama make it difficult to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, the terrorism detention complex that turns 10 years old this week. But they’re a symptom of a greater obstacle to a peace deal: Congress’ broad, bipartisan allergy to releasing any detainees from Gitmo at all.”

The reality: “An administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the super-sensitive proposition, tells Danger Room that… ‘The only thing we’d consider is a transfer into third-party custody.’… One option, reported by the New York Times, is for Obama to turn the Taliban detainees over to the custody of Qatar, a U.S. ally that has allowed the Taliban to open a local office for the pursuit of a peace deal. No ex-detainee appears to have committed any act of terrorism after being transferred to Qatar; the only such detainee Qatar has taken is Jaralla Saleh Kahla al-Marri, whom the U.S. freed in 2008 after keeping him at Guantanamo for seven years.” [Spencer Ackerman, 1/13/12]

What We’re Reading

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey arrived in Israel amid tensions with Iran.

Pakistan announced it will reopen a NATO supply route into Afghanistan that has been closed since November.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appeared before the country’s Supreme Court for a contempt of court hearing.

The Arab League’s observer mission in Syria ended, with members expected to report on the government crackdown.

Plans to restart Japan’s nuclear plants following last year’s tsunami sparked outrage throughout the country.

Although Haiti has seen progress in the two years since a massive earthquake, recovery continues at a slow pace.

Mexico’s drug war is spreading to areas once thought safe.

The Bangladeshi military claims it thwarted a plot to oust the prime minster.

A report by aid agencies revealed thousands of people died and millions in funds were squandered because of the international community’s slow response to the famine in East Africa.

Hungary’s prime minister expressed he was open to compromising with the EU over its concerns about the country’s central bank.

Commentary of the Day

Christian Caryl thinks recent events in Malaysia are telling for the future of democracy in Southeast Asia.

Robert Wright explains how talk of regime change in Iran is disconnected from historical facts and reality.

President Barack Obama contrasts his administration’s “pivot” from Bush policies with conservative politicking on foreign policy.

Bookmark and Share