Talks with the Taliban? Why?

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus


I have been writing about events in the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia for  over four decades, but I continue to be amazed at how many things I do not “get” after all these years. For example: Why the persistent push for “negotiating with the Taliban” as a means of bringing “peace” to  Afghanistan, where the United States is still fighting the longest war in its history?  

My unease about this idea has only increased in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s major speech last week in which he announced plans to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and nearly all of the remaining 70,000 by the end of 2012.

In a follow-up speech to soldiers at Fort Drum, N.Y. last Thursday, Obama told members of the 10th Mountain Brigade that, “because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, which ultimately is going to be critical for consolidating that country.”

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The President’s optimism about constructive talks with the Taliban is questioned in a thoughtful “Diplomatic Memo” analysis by Steven Lee Myers and Mark Mazetti in last Thursday’s New York Times (“Taking a risk with Taliban negotiations, even if the talks are real  this time”).  The writers, after taking note of  Obama’s reference to “signs” that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, noted, “So far, however, those signs are hazy at best,” according to officials  and diplomats.

After reading the Times piece, my  own doubts and concerns about the wisdom of talks with the Taliban have only increased. Fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has repeatedly denied that there are “moderates” among the Taliban who seek peace with the U.S. and NATO-backed regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As for Karzai himself, he has gone back  and forth between threatening to “join the Taliban” to more recently denouncing the idea of talks with the terrorist group.

I have a few more  questions:

Why talk to the Taliban, the very extreme group which – while ruling Afghanistan – hosted and protected Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, enabling the terrorist mega-leader to plan and see to fruition the attack on 9/11 that led to 3,000 American deaths in addition to as many as 15,000 other innocent lives taken in other acts of terrorism?

If the murderous Taliban is brought back into the Afghan government, what do we say to the families of U.S. and allied troops who gave their lives or suffered wounds at the hands of the Taliban?

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, no regime on earth had a more draconian and barbaric attitude towards women:  Women and girls were forbidden to attend any kind of schools from kindergarten through college;  unescorted women  on the streets could be beaten at will with large sticks by Taliban men.  Even since their ouster from power, Taliban terrorists have thrown acid in the faces of girls attending school and have participated in the brutal disfiguring of women accused of infidelity or “disobeying their husbands.”  How could we be a party to an effort to bring people capable of such brutality back into the Afghan government?

To be sure, U.S. officials insist that in order for the Taliban to “qualify” for participation in peace talks and to join a government coalition, it would have to “disarm, sever ties with Al Qaeda’s remaining leadership, recognize the government in Afghanistan and accept the country’s Constitution, including basic rights for women,”  according to the Times reporters.  Sounds great, but thus far there have been absolutely no signs that the Taliban is ready to concede on any of those preconditions.

Even if the U.S. and its NATO allies manage to “peel off” (or more properly, “pay off”) some nominal Taliban members who are willing to mouth “acceptance” of the above conditions, bitter experience has taught us that the “solemn” promises of terrorists are not worth the paper on which they are printed. Think about the flowery language of the Oslo Accords in which the Palestinian Authority promised to renounce terrorism, stop teaching children to hate Israelis and Jews and to stop rocket attacks on Israel.  None of those promises meant a thing in the aftermath of Yasir Arafat’s duplicity and his launching of the “Second Intifada,” in which 1,000 Israelis  and 2,500 Palestinians lost their lives.

Maybe there is something I still don’t “get” about the idea of “peace talks” with the Taliban which reminds me of those during World  War II who proposed separate “peace talks” with “moderate” Nazi Party members, none of whom were found to exist.  

To  me the idea of a “moderate” member of the Taliban as a “peace partner” is an ultimate oxymoron.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.