Paul Pillar

Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Roach Motel

One of the latest efforts by members of Congress (especially, but not exclusively, Republicans) to impede the executive branch's conduct of foreign policy concerns the possible transfer of several Afghan Taliban out of the detention facility at Guantanamo as part of the process of negotiating an agreement with the Taliban. Specifically, the move would entail transferring five senior Taliban from Guantanamo to Qatar as a good-faith gesture. One anonymous Republican member of Congress forecast strong opposition if the Obama administration attempted this transfer, saying, "If they do that, then all hell breaks loose. There's just no way."

Opposition to this move probably reflects a combination of several misconceived and unhelpful beliefs:

That negotiating is mutually exclusive with fighting. A substantial modern history of warfare, including the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, demonstrates that not only are they not mutually exclusive, but negotiating while fighting may be the only way out of a war with even a hope of a satisfactory outcome. This belief is related to a more general one...

That diplomacy is a reward that should not be bestowed on enemies. This attitude merely handicaps ourselves by removing one of our tools of statecraft. The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said it best: you negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends.

That we need not and should not make concessions to an adversary to achieve peace. Negotiations that are conceived as all taking and no giving seldom work. The transfer of the five Taliban hardly even merits being considered a concession. It would be only an act of good faith to help make a negotiating process possible.

That the Afghan Taliban are international terrorists. The Taliban are an insular group concerned with the internal political and social structure of Afghanistan with no affinity to the transnational terrorist ideology of al-Qaeda. The prime objective of negotiations with the Taliban should be to eliminate any possibility of future alliances of convenience between the Taliban and the likes of al-Qaeda. The Taliban have given plenty of indication that such an outcome is achievable.

That something better than a very messy compromise is achievable in Afghanistan. This is related to the belief that prolonging U.S. involvement in the combat in Afghanistan can somehow achieve what a decade of such involvement to date has not achieved. A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon reacted to the possible Taliban detainee transfer by saying, "It would seem that the Taliban are free to wait the president out and recoup their senior leaders without obtaining any real guarantee for a peaceful, stable or free Afghanistan.” Eschewing negotiations and prolonging the war would guarantee a peaceful, stable or free Afghanistan? This war certainly has given no reason to believe it would.

That Guantanamo ought to be a roach motel where detainees check in but never check out. If the prospect of a settlement to end the war in Afghanistan is not worth letting five detainees out of Gitmo, then what ever would be worth it?

Image: isafmedia