Talking with the Taliban?

The Obama administration is miscalculating by agreeing to negotiate with the Taliban.

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The Obama administration continues to hope that talks with the Taliban will lead to a smoother and more peaceful end to America's 12-year war in Afghanistan. But less than one week after the Taliban opened a diplomatic office in Qatar, Taliban militants orchestrated a major attack in Kabul – this time on the presidential palace, the Afghan defense ministry and a CIA facility. The attack reminds us what little chance negotiations with the Taliban have of succeeding.

With U.S. troops set to depart the country in 2014, the Taliban, which remains opposed to the very existence of the new Afghan government, has little reason to negotiate in good faith. What's worse, the Obama administration's eagerness to hold talks is giving the extremist group time and space to prepare for a resurgence after U.S. troops withdraw next year.

In the past, both Kabul and Washington have tried to negotiate a political solution with the Taliban. In 2011, Kabul's efforts suffered a major blow when the Taliban assassinated the Afghan government's lead negotiator, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. 

America's efforts were publicly detailed in May 2012, when President Obama announced that a key pillar of U.S. policy going forward would be to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, premised on the group first breaking ties with al-Qaida, renouncing violence and abiding by Afghan laws. This initiative quickly failed, however. In October 2012, The New York Times wrote, "American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal." 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Nonetheless, the Washington Post reported three months later that the White House had re-launched efforts to negotiate, "despite resistance from the U.S. military, mixed signals from Pakistan and outright refusal by the militants themselves."  Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry recently re-emphasized America's commitments to the principles that Obama announced last year. Still, the Taliban has given little genuine indication it is willing to meet those demands. 

Since 2001, the United States, along with its allies and partners and the Afghan people, have fought to create and sustain a functional government that is responsive and accountable to the needs and will of the Afghan people, and respects and defends their human rights. For the Taliban, however, the terms that the Obama administration and Afghan government insist on are simply non-starters. Indeed, the Taliban's vision of a post-2014 Afghanistan is fundamentally dissimilar.

First, the Taliban remain steadfast allies of al-Qaida and continue to closely coordinate their combined efforts against the international coalition and Afghan government. As Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation argued last year:

[E]ven if some Taliban leaders see the logic in breaking ties with al-Qaeda, they would find it extremely challenging to do so from an operational and logistical perspective, given the network of relationships that has been forged between individual members of each group over the past three decades.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Second, the Taliban remains as committed as ever to its repressive beliefs, particularly towards women. The Taliban's reign during the 1990s was one of the most brutal and barbaric regimes in history.  As a report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights noted in 2000, "discrimination against women is officially sanctioned and pervades every aspect of the lives of women." While the rights of women are still being challenged today, their lives in Afghanistan are far better than they were a decade ago. A return to the Taliban's rule of fear would severely undermine, if not eliminate, these important gains.

Third, the Obama administration's desire to seek an Afghan endgame could legitimize the Taliban in domestic and international circles. Indeed, the Taliban described its new political office in Doha as being part of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the official name of Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled in the 1990s. By negotiating with Taliban leadership, rather than pursuing reconciliation with individual members, the United States and Afghanistan are granting legitimacy to the Taliban and their beliefs in the eyes of the Afghan people and the international community. Washington and Kabul have now effectively said that Mullah Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban, is a man to do business with, instead of continuing to completely repudiate his dangerous rhetoric and violent actions. 

Washington's attempts to forge a peace agreement with the Taliban are likely to fail because there is no way to peacefully reconcile the movement's brutal and barbaric vision with any hope for a modern and moderate Afghanistan. The Obama administration's desire is that a negotiated settlement will allow the United States to comfortably withdraw in 2014, but the Taliban's track record, and its very nature, gives little reason for optimism.

Patrick Christy and Evan Moore are Senior Policy Analysts at the Foreign Policy Initiative

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