The Obama administration has embarked on a fresh effort to get allies back on board with the goal of talks leading to Taliban reconciliation, following the Taliban's public acknowledgment of its willingness to negotiate. In a Jan. 3 statement, the Taliban indicated they would establish a political office in Qatar that will be used "to come to an understanding with other nations." Does this mark one of the most historic developments since the beginning of the war: the Taliban shedding its status as an insurgency and beginning its transformation into a state? In another statement issued Jan. 12, the Taliban reiterated its interest in increasing political efforts but added that this "does not mean a surrender from jihad and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration." So, which is it -- talk or fight?
The Taliban's contradictory words offer little assurance of its willingness to follow through on commitments made through formal negotiations. But we should not interpret official statements as signs of agreement; the Taliban continues to face internal discord over the war, with a pro-reconciliation faction often operating in conflict with those still seeking military victory. Expect more schizophrenic statements from both the Taliban who declared victory on Jan. 15 and the United States, as both sides feel pressure to show strong negotiating positions.
Likewise, the U.S. approach of "fight, talk, build," does not mean that the administration speaks with one voice. The tensions among American defense, intelligence, and diplomatic communities on the Taliban's willingness to negotiate are well documented. At face value, the military's reluctance to characterize Taliban intentions reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of its military campaign in Afghanistan. The risk-averse nature of the intelligence community often lends itself to the most conservative estimate possible -- rendering any possibility of negotiation impossible. Meanwhile, diplomats believe political talks are the only solution. The United States policy community remains stuck in an ideological debate over the Taliban's true identity: terrorist group, ideological movement, political entity, or insurgency? But time has run out for debates like this. Almost all parties, regardless of ideological bias or motivation, agree that talks are the only way out of Afghanistan.
If so, where do we go from here? How do we reconcile the major disagreements over reconciliation if it is the only way forward? There are five prominent and challenging reasons that officials and analysts use to say why negotiations can't or shouldn't work. Here's why they're wrong.
1. The Taliban have too much blood on their hands. Last week, Secretary Clinton acknowledged that the United States was considering transferring Guantanamo detainees to Qatar in exchange for talks with the Taliban. The deal would include former senior Taliban military commander Mullah Mohammed Fazl, implicated in mass sectarian killings prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. There's no debate that the Taliban's killing of Shiites is morally reprehensible. Furthermore, releasing a mass murderer to build trust for a peace process has been criticized by American analysts and Republican presidential hopefuls, not to mention Afghan and regional stakeholders. And that's for someone who's killed Afghans. The Taliban directly or indirectly killed more than 4,500 Americans.
According to the latest estimates from the Department of Defense, 1,761 members of the U.S. military died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. invasion, as well as 2,819 Americans killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, which al Qaeda leadership planned from the comfort of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As Senator Dianne Feinstein said, "the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with." Feinstein's remarks come on the heels of media reports on the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, which suggests little progress was made last year given the high number of casualties. Clinton would remind us that "you don't negotiate with your friends." No one expects the United States will find immediate friendship from the likes of Mullah Fazl and other detainees if transferred, especially after years of confinement in Guantanamo. However, with death being the only constant of the past decade, we can only presume that they, like the United States, are looking for a way out of the fighting.