Negotiate with the Taliban?

At the WNYC Studios in SoHo

At the WNYC Studios in SoHo

On Tuesday, the announcement was made that the U.S. would commence negotiations with the Taliban at their office in Doha now that the Afghan National Security Forces have taken on the lead role for security in Afghanistan.  A few years ago I wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Times saying,

I can tell you this much: many of the veterans I know are outraged at the possibility of the United States negotiating with the Taliban as if they were just another Afghan political party and not a criminal gang that inflicts and enforces the most extreme ignorance, poverty and violence upon innocent people — upon schoolchildren.

So what did I think about this new announcement?  One of the kind producers at WNYC’s nationally-syndicated program The Takeaway gave me a call to ask me what I thought, and to come on the show on Wednesday morning to talk about it from my perspective as a veteran.  So I did:

A Bumpy Road? Karzai Walks Away from Peace Talks

 The segment felt especially short, and went by really quick.  Todd Zwillich was filling in as host for John Hockenberry, and was a charming guy to talk with before we went on air.  He went over the basic points with me, saying, “Ok, you’re a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.”  “Yes,” I said.  “And you’ve served three terms,” he said.  “Well, I’ve served three tours–I wasn’t really elected for the job,” I said, and we shared a quick laugh.

Before going on a show, I usually prep at least a handful of talking points for myself, even if it’s just going to be a short segment.  I unfolded a hand-written piece of notebook paper on the table in front of me after I got the mic adjusted, and Todd looked over at me, smiled, and said, “You’ll never get through most of that.”  I told him it was to avoid giving him a blank stare in response to a question, which was true.  And this is also such an important issue, touching on such a large span of history in which many people have lost their lives, that I want to do justice to the situation with what I say.

My talking points

My talking points

Todd was right: I didn’t get through most of my talking points on air.  But I do get to share my talking points with you here on my blog.

On the one hand, it seems completely outrageous to negotiate with the Taliban because they are:

  • Responsible for killing more than 2,100 American troops, and hundreds of Coalition troops
  • Still holding Bowe Bergdahl prisoner
  • Targeting innocent civilians and aid workers in vicious attacks
  • Attacking children–especially schoolchildren
  • Waging genocide against the Hazara minority in both Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Assasinating Afghan men and women working in government
  • Profiting from the opium trade and other criminal activities

On the other hand, we want the conflict to end–and diplomacy must be part of that solution.  We cannot end the conflict through fighting alone, which is why it has been so important to include State Department, USAID, and other non-military representatives alongside our military efforts.  Many low-level Taliban fighters have been persuaded to stop fighting as a result of intensive reconciliation efforts–and this must continue.  But even if the U.S. negotiates with and attempts reconciliation with the Taliban’s senior leaders, are they even willing–or capable–of calling a ceasefire?

Of course I have far more questions than answers on this:

1) Who exactly will be negotiating in Doha?  There are numerous groups that make up a sort of Taliban franchise:

  • Quetta Shura – Mullah Omar is said to be living in Quetta, Pakistan, along with other senior leadership from the Taliban regime that formerly ruled from Kandahar.  The last time the Quetta Shura agreed to peace talks with the Afghan government, they sent an emissary who had a bomb in his turban, murdering former president and leader of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, Berhanuddin Rabbani.  Afghanistan is still feeling the loss of Rabbani and his ability to negotiate with the warlords and Taliban who fought so brutally in the years between the Soviet withdrawal and the U.S. invasion in 2001.
  • Haqqani Network – Also based in Pakistan, the Haqqanis will often take on the Taliban “brand name,” but are a distinct terrorist group that has orchestrated catastrophic attacks on embassies and the Serena hotel in Kabul, in addition to killing troops, government officials, and numerous innocents.
  • Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) – Led by the pathological, self-aggrandizing warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, HIG has claimed that they alone are the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and they have retained a unique group identity since Gulbuddin’s civil warring days.  He may ally with the Taliban today, but he may do his own thing tomorrow.
  • Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) – Responsible for so much bloodshed in Pakistan and allied with enemies of India, TTP is its own Taliban terror/crime syndicate.

And these are just the main groups that we talk about when we talk about the Taliban–there are other splinter groups as well.  But given that they all operate primarily from Pakistan, what role have or will Pakistan play in any potential peace talks?  And if one of these groups makes a peace deal, will others continue to fight?

2) Once the Taliban is at the table, what terms could they be willing to negotiate?  Will they be willing (or able) to:

  • Stop firing on U.S. bases?
  • Stop attacking Afghan soldiers and police?
  • End their affiliation with Al Qaeda and training/embedding foreign fighters?
  • Give up profiting from the opium trade and organized crime?
  • Stop killing and intimidating Afghans to get their way?
  • Accept the existing constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan?
  • Accept the participation of a dozen or more outspoken women serving in the Afghan parliament?
  • Accept the education of boys and girls?
  • Accept that women have basic human rights as well as rights under Islam?
  • Work with the many political moderates in the Afghan government?

3) And how might peace negotiations influence the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan?

To be honest, I am not terribly optimistic, and since the announcement, there have been not only attacks (fatal ones) on U.S. troops, but also justifiable backlash from President Karzai and many outraged Afghans.  Perhaps there are possibilities we do not yet know about, and my hope is that our smart diplomats know what they’re doing.  Only time will tell.

A phrase I came up with in a moment of grasping for an answer during the interview was, “we want peace, but peace with justice.”  It’s an awkward phrase, but one that I hope bears out.  We cannot negotiate away justice for the men, women, and children of Afghanistan.  But we must strive for peace, somehow, someway.

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