Talk to the Taliban? Not Now


Nov 11, 2008

This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on November 11, 2008.

As new U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus got a firsthand look at the worsening security situation in Afghanistan last week, he heard from some U.S., British and Afghan officials that the best way forward is to engage in peace talks with the Taliban. Such talks have already even tentatively begun. This is a bad idea.

First, imagine the actual substance of the negotiation. The Taliban are doing well and have no reason to abandon their aims. They want what they had before 2001: an extremist, eccentric Islamic state where the sports stadium is used for public executions of dissenters, homosexuals and women accused of adultery; religious police roam the streets with sticks to beat anyone whose beard or chador is too short; and all education for girls is eliminated.

What part of that are we planning to accommodate?

Besides, we've tried talking to the Taliban before -- throughout the 1990s, when they held power. They make no concessions.

Who can forget Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Mutawakkil's proposed "compromise" on the issue of public executions? If the international community was offended by the killings in the sports stadium, he suggested in a television interview, they should send money to build a separate execution facility. Mutawakkil, by the way, belongs to the Taliban's purported "moderate" faction.

In 2001, delegations of respected Islamic leaders from other Muslim countries even traveled there to beg them not to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas, those incomparable treasures of world civilization. Everyone knows how that effort ended.

Talks will be no more successful this time around. But the message will be much worse. It is one thing to negotiate with a sitting government, however marginal and outlandish. But for a superpower and a Western military alliance and several important regional states to negotiate with a renegade group would merely gift that group a PR coup.

Such talks could mean only one thing -- that the big guys are desperate. If at all, such a negotiation can only make sense once the situation is reversed -- when the Taliban have been routed and one is ready to consider reintegrating portions of their forces in the interest of peace and reconciliation.

The Karzai government, and with it the whole democratic experiment in Afghanistan, is in trouble. In the face of massive corruption, incompetence and a glacial pace of economic reconstruction, the population is becoming disheartened and disillusioned.

But as for the experiment itself, they remain wholly, almost touchingly, on board.

This is another reason why talking to the Taliban is so deeply wrong: It will be the final nail in the coffin of ordinary Afghans' faith in the world.

They wanted, and continue to want, the Taliban gone. In those areas where the Taliban are making strides, by all accounts the population is cooperating out of force and fear, not from any change of heart.

"You will leave, and the Taliban will come back" was the frightened refrain of Afghans from the very beginning. Even in 2004, when things seemed relatively stable, you could not walk down the street in Kandahar without being accosted by nervous young Afghans anxious to put this scenario before you in hopes of hearing your denial.

So why speak to the Taliban now? Persuading some of the more moderate leaders to join the government, proponents believe, will weaken the group and split its ranks. It will make Karzai look reasonable, as he extends the hand of peace. If the Taliban agree to cut back on the violence, it will be easier to hold next year's elections.

These arguments misjudge the current situation. The Taliban, who consider themselves ascendant, have no motivation to compromise. To many Afghans, Karzai does not look reasonable for negotiating, he looks weak. And the Taliban, let us remember, are the group who regularly issue death threats to voters and murder election officials -- not a likely partner in making democracy work.

Unfortunately, dashed expectations will not be the worst outcome of these premature talks. The consequences could extend well beyond Afghanistan.

Talking with the Taliban puts NATO, the United States and the international community on a par with a localized band of extremists, and departs from our otherwise strong stance on terrorists. Why not talk with al-Qaida, then, or negotiate with Osama bin Laden?

To many Afghans, the answer is depressingly obvious. Once again, they will tell you, when push comes to shove, we will sell them out. We will cobble together a dubious compromise, even if it spells misery to the Afghan population. And then we'll hit the road.

But not unscathed. Who can ever again take seriously our "war on terror" if we capitulate even to terror's scrawny little offshoot?

Cheryl Benard is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

© 2008 United Press International

This commentary also appeared in the Middle East Times.

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