Talking to the Taliban

Obama has seriously erred in letting talks with the Taliban interfere with more important priorities in Afghanistan.

President Obama is losing sight of our interests in Afghanistan. Again.

Despite clearly laying out U.S. interests in Afghanistan at West Point in 2009—disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda—the president faltered when he authorized a nation-building-cum-counterinsurgency strategy that far outstripped that goal. Mission leap, not mission creep. Now the White House is allowing its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table to obstruct more important aims.

The path to negotiations in Afghanistan has been a troubled one. Thus, a White House desperate for good news was quick to trumpet the long-awaited, painfully brokered grand opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar. But hope erupted into disappointment, as it so often has since President Obama took the reins of foreign policy in 2009. President Hamid Karzai condemned the office and abruptly cancelled a more crucial negotiations processthat over the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014.

Why did our President Karzai respond to an opening towards peace in this way? A sign. The Taliban representatives in Qatar had posted a sign in front of their office that read, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Karzai was widely ridiculed for his hostile reaction over such a “cosmetic” issue and the White House, in frustration, let loose a leak that the “zero option,” that would see all U.S. troops depart by the end of 2014, had been mooted within the confines of the National Security Council. The message from Washington was clear: You need us more than we need you. Play ball on talks, or else.

The trouble is, this was not really about a sign, but rather was a consequence of larger problems in the U.S.-Afghan relationship and, in particular, Washington’s imperious approach to the issue of talks with the Taliban. This stems from President Obama’s misprioritization of U.S. aims in Afghanistan.

Our core interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan are the pursuit and containment of terrorists with transnational ambitions and the maintenance of sufficient regional stability. The latter concerns Pakistan—an unstable, paranoid nuclear power with a penchant for sponsoring militants—far more than Afghanistan (U.S. policymakers often fail to appreciate the extent to which the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has destabilized Pakistan). A negotiated settlement between the Kabul government and the Taliban movement is a useful but not essential for either of these interests. This is not to say that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban is not a desirable outcome—first and foremost for Afghans—and that America does not have a role to play on this issue. But, the pursuit of talks must not be allowed to obfuscate America’s ability to keep a residual force of special operators, trainers and air support in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

How can Washington get back on track to play a positive role in Afghanistan’s political future?

Step back. “Afghan-led” is a term that has been bandied about liberally in Washington, London, and the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). However, the Afghan National Security Forces have only recently taken the lead on security operations across the country. The same must now occur for talks. Thus far, the U.S. has sought to coerce and prod Kabul to the table, often in ways that are callous to Afghan interests and oddly disconnected from our own. Talks must be pursued at Kabul’s pace and in line with Kabul’s interests. Last year, the Afghan High Peace Council assumed a more robust approach when it visited Islamabad and announced a five-step “road map” toward a negotiated settlement. This is encouraging, not only because Afghans are taking the lead, but that the center of gravity for talks need not be the Presidential Palace. Indeed, if President Karzai leaves office as he should next year, the Afghan government will be in a stronger position for talks having taken control over most insurgent prisoners and assumed authority over the “night raids” so feared by the Taliban. These are two important “sticks” now held by Afghan government.