Why Talks With the Taliban Are Futile

Why Talks With the Taliban Are Futile

By Jed Babbin - June 23, 2011

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai disclosed that the Obama administration had begun peace talks with the Taliban. Shortly after that, Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed the negotiations, adding that the talks were preliminary and that substantive discussions weren't expected to begin until at least this winter.

And on Wednesday night, President Obama set preconditions for those talks, which the Taliban cannot accept. When those conditions are compromised, as they will be, our already-weak position will be undercut even more.

That faint echo of history you hear must make you wonder if the shape of the negotiating table will matter as much to the Taliban negotiators as Obama's schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops.

The last time we tried to negotiate with an undefeated enemy was more than four decades ago and the enemy was the North Vietnamese. The parallels are so close that it is hard to see how the result in Afghanistan can be different.

Karzai has grown quarrelsome, accusing the United States of occupying his country for its own purposes, and is trying to establish limits on drone operations and more. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu often tried, unsuccessfully, to change the course of the Paris peace talks. Compared to the comprehensive corruption in Karzai's government, Thieu's was a model of good government. And Thieu's military was far better manned, trained and equipped than Karzai's is.

After years of negotiation, the "peace" we crafted with the North Vietnamese provided a foundation for its final conquest of South Vietnam soon after American forces departed.

Obama needs to begin negotiations with the Taliban now because, in late 2009 when he announced the troop surge, he said that the surge would end and withdrawal of U.S. troops would begin in July 2011 and be completed in 2014. If Obama is to maintain that schedule, some credible "peace" must be in place by then or historians will label Afghanistan as "Obama's Vietnam."

Obama and Gates have said repeatedly that the number of troops withdrawn would depend on the conditions on the ground. Those conditions range from fluid to grim.

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told a Senate committee in March that the gains we have made in nearly a decade of war have "arrested" the Taliban's momentum but are "fragile and reversible." Bold attacks by Taliban -- many of them members of the Afghan army and security services -- are a commonplace. Last week, a group of insurgents killed nine people in a police station near the presidential palace.

In his Wednesday speech, Obama said that the negotiations "must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al-Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution." These preconditions seem designed to be rejected by the Taliban and to then be waived by the Obama administration.

The Taliban's founder and leader, Mullah Omar, used al-Qaeda to consolidate his power before 9/11, cementing a close alliance between the groups. The Taliban won't divorce from al-Qaeda. At best, they will make vague assurances to satisfy Obama's conditions. The Taliban's commitment to violence is part of its basic creed: It will not end.

Many of the Afghan constitution's articles preserve rights that the Taliban never tolerated when they were in power, and which are anathema to their radical Islamism. Among them is the mandate that women's rights shall be equal to those of men. (The Taliban regime prohibited rights for women and banned their education.) Though freedom of religion is declared by the constitution (and negated by subjecting it to Islamic law), the overt religious oppression that the Taliban perpetrated isn't evident. Freedom of expression is declared "inviolable" under the Afghan constitution, including the right to nonviolent public demonstration. (The Taliban banned photography, television and public protests.) The current constitution provides for a semblance of due process in criminal cases. (The Taliban held public executions of regime opponents after trials in Islamic kangaroo courts.) The idea that the Taliban will accept the Afghan constitution is risible.

We, and Karzai, can negotiate for our side. But who can negotiate for the Taliban?

Mullah Omar is reportedly still in hiding and a top target for NATO forces. Unless he is given safe conduct, his subordinate commanders will not have the power to do more than negotiate subject to his later decision on terms. Moreover, there are at least a half-dozen major tribal and clan groups affiliated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, such as the Haqqani network, for which Omar may not have the power to speak. And then there is the question of Iran.

Iran, as reported by Afghanistan commanders including Petraeus and his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is funding and probably arming the Taliban just as the Chinese and Russians funded and armed the North Vietnamese. And, like the North Vietnamese, the Taliban cannot be defeated without bringing outside support to an end. Iran will not abide by any agreement that leaves Afghanistan in the hands of a democratic government under the Afghan constitution.

That raises the ultimate question: What can result from negotiations with the Taliban that will advance U.S. interests?

Obama's stated goal in Afghanistan is to "reverse the Taliban's momentum" and prevent Afghanistan from reverting to a sanctuary for al-Qaeda. He claimed on Wednesday that those goals have been achieved, or nearly so. But there is no way for us to prevent Afghanistan's reversion (short of military action to end Iranian and Pakistani support) even if we were to stay there forever. Which we must not.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, we have yet to face the inherent implausibility of nation-building in Afghanistan. Until we understand that, we cannot understand that no matter what happens in Afghanistan (or for that matter, Iraq), our enemy is not only the terrorist networks and quasi-state terrorist powers such as the Taliban. The enemies are the nations that sponsor terrorism, and we cannot force them to cease that sponsorship by counterinsurgency, which is just the military term for nation-building.

Just as the North Vietnamese were able to fight as long as they were supported by Russia and China, the Taliban and al-Qaeda can fight as long as they are supported by Iran and other nations. And, just like the North Vietnamese, the Taliban are undefeated. Any peace accord we reach with them will last only as long as it takes for us to leave.

If we can gain anything from a negotiated "peace" with the Taliban, it will be to finally learn the lessons of Vietnam.

Those lessons are two-fold: first, that fighting only the enemy's proxies cannot end in victory; and second, that if we do not fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, we will lose it inevitably. So it was in Vietnam. So shall it be in Afghanistan.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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