February 19, 2011


U.S.-Taliban Talks (Steve Coll, February 28, 2011, The New Yorker)

Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation. That may take some time: the first secret talks between the United States and representatives of North Vietnam took place in 1968; the Paris Peace Accords, intended to end direct U.S. military involvement in the war, were not agreed on until 1973.

When asked for comment on the talks, a White House spokesman said that the remarks that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made last Friday at the Asia Society offered a “thorough representation of the U.S. position.” Clinton had tough words for the Taliban, saying that they were confronted with a choice between political compromise and ostracism as “an enemy of the international community.” She added, “I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace. President Reagan understood that when he sat down with the Soviets. And Richard Holbrooke made this his life’s work. He negotiated face to face with Milosevic and ended a war.”

Mullah Omar is not a participant in the preliminary talks. He does not attend even secret meetings of underground Taliban leadership councils in Pakistani safe houses. When he does speak, he does so obliquely, via cassette tapes. One purpose of the talks initiated by the Obama Administration, therefore, is to assess which figures in the Taliban’s leadership, if any, might be willing to engage in formal Afghan peace negotiations, and under what conditions.

Obama’s war advisers previously made it clear that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, must lead any high-level peace or “reconciliation” process involving Taliban leaders, and, since 2008, Karzai has carried out sporadic talks with current and former Taliban, occasionally aided by Saudi Arabia, but to no end. Last summer, the Afghan government’s attempts produced a farcical con, when a man posed as a senior Taliban leader and fleeced his handlers for cash. The recent American talks are intended to prime more successful and durable negotiations led by Karzai. The United States would play a supporting role in these negotiations, and might join them to discuss the status of Taliban prisoners in U.S. custody or the future of international forces in Afghanistan. For the United States, the overarching goal of such negotiations would be to persuade at least some important Taliban leaders to break with Al Qaeda, leave the battlefield, and participate in Afghan electoral politics, without touching off violence by anti-Taliban groups or gutting the rights enjoyed by minorities and women.

Forcing the Taliban into the open is basically just a means of target acquisition.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2011 8:44 AM
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