Today’s Simple Answer to An Incredibly Complex Question

Yeah, I’m going to go with “really, NO” on this one.

If you want to try to convince me otherwise, be my guest.

(Context: The CNN story the above headline is clipped from)

71 Comments on “Today’s Simple Answer to An Incredibly Complex Question”

  1. Depends on how you define “the Taliban:”

    Petraeus is fond of differentiating “Big ‘T’ Taliban” from “little ‘t’ taliban,” in that the latter mostly comprise villagers and refugees who are just confused and angry at all the shootiing going on in their vicinity. These people can be won over, or at least turned away from active, violent opposition.

    The small, hard-core ideologues of the first group, not so much.

  2. I don’t it’ll hurt talking to them. I dunno if we’ll find common ground, but it is worth a shot.

    If that fails, well, we tried. Back to the guns.

  3. If, by ‘talking to the Taliban,’ you mean ‘me driving my thumbs into all of their eyes in true Roy Baty fashion,’ then, uh…yes. I’ll just be in the other room dulling my thumbs.

  4. Who specifically do we intend to talk to, that’s what I’d like to know. While talking to “The Taliban” might seem like the honorable thing to do, “The Taliban” is really a bunch of fucking idiots (and I mean that in the literal sense not figurative).

    Should we be lucky enough to coax “The Taliban” into a forum what might we have to say to “The Taliban”? “Stop being fucking idiots, or else!” is probably the most honorable thing we might be able to construct in that situation. Or maybe “Be fucking idiots in your own yard, stay off our lawns” might work? I don’t know.

  5. … Why wouldn’t you?

    Or are you aiming for the complete eradication of everyone you declare to be “the Taliban”?

  6. I don’t necessarily buy it myself, but there are cogent arguments to be made for it. Off the top of my head:

    – Afghanistan is a conservative muslim country in much the same way the South Carolina is a conservative christian country. Attempting to prop up a government that ignores the political/philosophical/religious leanings of the vast majority of the country’s populace is doomed to failure.

    – It’s not our job (even if it were possible, which it isn’t) to turn Afghanistan into something resembling a modern country (especially over the objections of somewhere between a plurality and a majority of its population, see previous point).

    – It is our job to keep Afghanistan from being the kind of failed state in which Al Qaeda can do its business unhindered. (It’s our job partially because we believe based on past evidence that such a situation is dangerous to us, and partially because when we invaded, we volunteered.)

    – It’s clear that being a member of the Taliban means an enthusiasm for an ultra-conservative brand of Sharia law and for the the removal of foreign soldiers from Afghanistan. It’s less clear what percentage of them are in favor of letting Al Qaeda use Afghanistan as a training base.

    Putting all of the above together, there seems to be an argument to be made for at least exploring whether enough of the Taliban can be disaggregated from Al Qaeda to help form a stable government in Afghanistan.

    Now: can this be done? Is it, in the long run, a good idea? Fucked if I know. I suggest following spackerman for substantially better-informed discussions on the subject.

  7. Edit my comment to be “Yeah, what Doctor Memory says.”

    And I’ll also amend it to say: okay, if you are going to talk to Afghanistans, who may or may not be members of “the Taliban”… that’s a different attitude, and I can see the argument for that.

  8. @M. Thyer: Actually if you read what the administration is talking about, that’s exactly the question. The Taliban is not a particularly well-defined entity.

    Granted the CNN piece, like a lot of other media coverage, doesn’t do much to clarify this.

  9. When I said what I said before, about the eyes and the thumbs, I was of course thinking only of the “evil” Taliban: THEIR eyes and my thumbs.

    Oh, you don’t care.

  10. @M.Thyer: what’s the alternative? Ignoring them? Nope, that didn’t work out so well last time, did it? Surrender to their demands? As far as I know, they don’t really have any, other than perhaps “stay out of our country and let us abuse and oppress our people the way we think is right, just as you abuse and oppress your people the way you think is right.”

    That leaves trying to deal with them somehow. Either by talking with them, or by destroying them. (I use generic verbs for both cases there — and destruction may happen through non-violent means.)

    A friend says the question may be whether it’s worthwhile. That’s not how I interpreted it, but I’ll say that even if it’s not worthwhile, then we should continue to try to talk to “them.” Even if it’s concurrent with attempting to destroy them (violently or non-violently).

    I’ve tried rereading that CNN article multiple times, and I still don’t see why the answer to “Should we talk to a group that wishes us dead?” is ever “of course.”

    If the focus is on “the right approach,” then I will concede that talk alone isn’t the right way to go. But not-talking is also not the right approach in that case.

    I admit to being sick recently, and so my comprehension may be way off, and I may be missing something glaringly obvious to everyone else. I do apologize if so.

  11. “why the answer to”… “is ever of course not.” Told you I was sick…

  12. Well, given our shared history with the Taliban, I’d say it is worth a shot. For those of you too young to remember, the Soviet Union invaded Afganistan back in the 1970s. The United States backed the Mujahideen, which we considered ‘freedom fighters’ for killing the Soviet invaders. In fact, this country supported them with weapons, money and training, courtesy of the CIA. This little adventure gave rise to a guy named Osama Bin Ladin–ever hear of him? He was OUR man in Afganistan. After the Soviets gave up and left, the Mujahideen never really succeded in creating a unified government. And, in the end, some of the more reactionary factions took control under the name Taliban. Then the US invades Afganistan, and the old freedom fighters begin fighting off the latest invaders. What would you do if your homeland was invaded and occupied twice in your lifetime? The United States is responsible for the problem of Afganistan, and maybe its time the United States becomes part of the solution.

  13. At the risk of being dangerously politically incorrect here, I’d like to reference another CNN article.

    Saudis order 40 lashes for elderly woman for mingling

    The commonality between the two articles is the Sharia law practiced by both the Taliban and the Saudis. As an American it is hard for me to wrap my brain around treating women like property. It will be hard to find common ground for peace. On the other hand it’s not like the US treasury is overflowing for funds for a war. There is probably no harm in talking. We can compromise a lot out of practicality. I just hope we do not compromise on condoning such harsh treatment of women.

  14. I’m going to continue to swim in these same shallow waters because:

    a) I’m a typical disinterested American and
    b) because despite all the that building hatred “The Taliban” might or might not be developing for America and Americans we’re beating them to the punch generally.

    Really I have no desire to know about the finer details of a culture half a world away now am I interested in brokering a peace with very disparate and losely associated religious fanatics. My own culture is erroding and there are some particularly obvious indicators that we are indeed our own worst enemy.

    Talk to “The Taliban”, why? Someone needs to talk to Americans.

  15. As soon as NATO troops are out of Afghanistan, the Taliban will be back in. Probably democratically.

    We can either accept and plan for it, or pretend it won’t happen and be surprised.

  16. #13 makes an excellent point: it’s way, way, way too late to develop an allegedly principled aversion to talking to conservative Islamic nationalists in Afghanistan — we’ve been doing just that for decades now. And in point of fact we never stopped: many of our quickly-discovered-in-2001 “friends” in the Northern Alliance were just as awful as the Taliban. The difference, at the time, was that the Taliban had entered into an alliance with OBL and the N.A. had not. If a permanent wedge can be driven between the Taliban (or some significant portion thereof) and what’s left of Al Qaeda, that would be a good outcome.

    (Can such a wedge be driven? Again, fucked if I know.)

  17. Can anyone define what Taliban is anymore? Are these the same Taliban that were in power in 2001? Are these just people with guns who are shooting at NATO troops and as a result earn the name Taliban? Why are we in Afghanistan? Is it for Bin Laden? Is it to patrol the country and keep the current Afghan president in power?

  18. I’m not clear on what alternatives to talking we have in the long term, aside from killing them all and then sowing their lands with uranium tailings. And even if we pick that, I don’t see how talking would hurt much.

    Whatever bad things with think about the Taliban, they were welcomed by a lot of people in Afghanistan because they actually created a little order in a country that was not exactly experiencing a surplus of it. Even if we did decide to kill all the Taliban, I don’t see why something roughly equivalent wouldn’t take shape if we don’t change the underlying situation.

  19. Negotiating with the Taliban is not a good solution, but I’m not sure there’s a good solution out there. I don’t see any end-game scenario that concludes with happy, stable Pakistan and Afghanistan that are American allies and rolls up Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

    So I’m not sure we lose a lot by talking to them, at least through channels. If nothing else, the information might help, and it would score points in the propaganda war.

    At this point, I’d be happy with an American foreign policy that had a purpose and that respected the governments and wishes of other governments.

  20. The Brits and the Russians have proven ineffectual in a military take-over, and now its our turd… um, turn. Negotiation is the only way to end this war, but we will have to soften them up to the idea first.

  21. You can’t talk with crazy bastards. Examples: Neville Chamberlain to Adolf Hitler. Or David Koresh, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

    The Taliban would rather kill everyone within reach or die themselves than allow any compromise in their twisted version of Islam. How do you negotiate with someone who is not committed to staying alive?

    The US needs to provide order and peace long enough for the sane People of Afghanistan to get their act together and learn how to run a country with fairness to all citizens. The idea is to make everyone want to see what nice things tomorrow brings.

  22. The only reason that the U.S. government cares about pacifying the violent loonies over there is that they’re in close proximity to the oil we need. If we didn’t need anything from them, we wouldn’t care how they treat each other (cf. Rwanda). The solution is to develop enough alternative energies so that we can leave them to slaughter each other in peace (heh).

  23. #22: Stalin and Mao were, easily, every bit as crazy as Hitler (nevermind David Koresh), and we quite successfully negotiated with them on any number of occasions. Crazy isn’t the issue, irreconcilable interests are.

  24. I’m with the people saying “define Taliban.”

    I did not read the remarks by Obama in that article as “Talking to the Taliban” but rather as “talking to the loose allies of the Taliban.” That said, I skimmed more than read that article, and I have not read the interview in correct context. And well, I know better than to believe that the news is above taking quotes out of context to make a headline.

    The difference is quite substantial in my mind, though. What exactly Taliban means changes the parameters of the issue entirely.

  25. If we didn’t talk to AQI in Iraq then why would we talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan? Why Iraq got better was that Iraqi nationals finally figured out, ” Hey, one day the Americans will leave. Those AQI jerks aren’t really going anywhere.” That and the Americans won’t cut your fingers off because they caught you smoking tobacco.
    Not that anyone who came over to our side was a “good guy” but at least they weren’t calling for the conquest and conversion of Western Civilization.
    Seems to me that anyone who actively wants to kill Americans and are a threat to our society need to be eliminated not talked to. But I will compromise and let my rifle speak for me. Fair enough?

  26. Steve

    I’m still thanking W for the current wars.

    And don’t give me that we were innocent victims on 9/11. I know we were attacked by Bin Ladin’s bunch, and as a result, we attacked Iraq under false pretenses.

    There were no WMDs and IF there were, we gave them to Saddam Hussein: He was OUR boy fighting against Iran. Why? because Iran resented our overthrowing their secular democracy in order to put a Shah back on the throne.
    And why, IF W vowed to chase Bin Laden to the gates of hell, did he fail to locate him? And why, if almost all of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis, did we not go to war against Saudi Arabia?

  27. I’m currently doing an intensive study of Afghanistan for my senior thesis so I feel vaguely qualified to say you’re wrong.

    The fact is that no foreign power has ever been able to exert any kind of coherent authority in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great was as close as it got, and that didn’t last very long. Any kind of solution in Afghanistan will require working with the people there and understanding that the cultures that make up the country are wildly different, not only from us, but from each other. Trying to get Pashtuns and Hazaras to live together peacefully is asking a lot.

    “Now wait,” you’re saying, “but the Taliban isn’t native, they’re a Pakistani organization.” That’s right. But they’ve gone native and are now as much of a threat to Pakistan. They’re also, unfortunately, the closest thing Afghanistan has to a functional wide-ranging government. There are more moderate elements in the Taliban who can be reasoned with, and by building a state from the ground up instead of trying to impose it from Kabul, we stand a much better chance of getting somewhere.

    Now, am I advocating we make nice with the insane Taliban that stones people to death and blows up Buddhas and that sort of shit? Absolutely not. Fortunately for us, the general Afghan population doesn’t like those people either. Afghanistan has a strong Islamic core, but Afghan Islam has also traditionally been very tolerant. Islamic extremism is a new phenomenon everywhere that it exists (don’t believe the shit the crazy right wing peddles–try finding any coherent “Islamofascism” anywhere before the 1950s or so), but it’s particularly new and unwelcome in Afghanistan.

    The people of Afghanistan will, for the most part, happily get rid of the extremist assholes like Al-Qaeda. But they don’t care for any central government at all, so if we insist on trying to make some sort of nation-state out of Afghanistan, we need somewhere to start. The moderate elements of the Taliban provide something that is local, established, and isn’t just a foreign puppet government. If we’re being honest, that’s all Karzai is. Afghanistan has a long history of being dicked with by foreign powers and they do not take kindly to it, and as every foreign power has discovered, the Afghans don’t lose wars.

    Of course, the real trick is trying to make Qizilbash, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and the other dozen ethnic groups in Afghanistan feel like they have some stake in a modernized nation-state rather than small tribal communities. And then there’s the Pashtunistan issue…

  28. Right now, if anyone in the administrations suggests doing anything it should be viewed with the same suspicion we view plagued rats trying to eat your face. I’d rather have Obama than McCain, but the level of cynical self-serving crap coming out of the oval office hasn’t exactly slowed down much. And their track record for rational behaviour is poor to say the least. Great marketing though.

    As for taking a position on talking to the Taliban. Sure, talk, tell them to stop, leave Afghanistan and Pakistan alone and go bug China, before you remove their irrational, twisted, misogynistic carcasses from the face of the planet. As usual, if you’re in a fight, make sure you finish it. Always finish it.

  29. And for the much more rational and balanced view, read GF at #30. That’s the analysis I would have liked to have made if I could get over my irrational dislike of idiocy.

  30. Regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea, it’s the sort of thing one can expect of Obama; the dude likes negotiation and compromise, and is actively prepared to back down on some of his positions in order to make an agreement.

  31. So, Fletcher, you think having an opinion, talking to a group about that opinion, and then modifying your opinion based upon the discussion you had that may have brought to light things you did not know is a bad thing?

    John, of course talking to whatever constitutes the Taliban is a good idea. Giving in to them, well that’s a different kettle of fish. Even superheroes talk to the supervillains, if for no other reason than to give them the chance to stop what they are doing before they beat the holy hell out of them.

    It’s like the scene in After Hours where Griffin Dunne is trying to get into the club, and the bouncer won’t let him in. Dunne offers him money and the bouncer takes it saying, “I’m going to take this money so you don’t feel like you haven’t tried everything. Here’s a quarter back in case you need to use the phone.” It didn’t help, but at least he tried, so when he lies to the guy to get in, he doesn’t feel too bad about it.

  32. Uh … what? Dude, I’m sorry if you read some negative sentiment into my post there, but it’s not what I put in there myself. I was trying to be as objective as possible in the whole “Talking to Taliban is good/bad/ugly” thing.

    To clear it up; I like Obama, and not just because the alternative was President Palin and the beginning of World War Three. I think his policies are sound, and I think that talking to Islamic states is far more sensible than Bush’s policy of We Don’t Talk To Evildoers. Barack Obama is one of the very very few people I would go gay for!

  33. It’s a bad question. Referring to all the groups that identify as Taliban as if they were a single cohesive entity sets you up for a bad answer. It’s better to have a divide-and-conquer approach: if a particular group of Taliban think it appropriate to give shelter to al-Qaeda, then we should treat them rather differently from a group of Taliban that are willing to sit on extremists who would attempt to strike outside Afghanistan. Now, the latter group are still likely to be fundamentalists of a stripe too extreme for our own comfort, but as long as they aren’t providing shelter and aid to terrorists, I think the Afghans will need to deal with them. (And I expect they will— there are plenty of Afghans who would like to get back to being able to basic things like educate their daughters or go kite-flying.)

    Once we have reasonable assurance that Afghanistan is no longer a training ground for international terrorists, I think we should back off to helping them out with economic development and purging corruption from their government.

  34. I agree with DarrenG @ 1 and others that “Taliban” is not a homogeneous system. Divide and conquer is usually a good strategy. Does this apply to Hamas? Hezboallah? Were there “good Nazis?”

    The world is not as black and white as Early Reagan and Bush 43 believed. Closer to what Late Reagan (when he worked with Gorby) and Bush 41 (who understood the CIA). “Evil Empire” and “Axis of Evil” are catchy rhetoric, but not about the real world.

    There’s some technical literature on how to take effective counterterrorist action. Understanding their network and using it against them, with infiltration, “turning” a few agents into double agents, use of disinformation, and use of sophisticated economic modeling to drive them bankrupt are all “soft power” but very smart.

    I’m not an expert, but I communicate with real experts.

    Meanwhile, ignore “talking heads” and pundits. Like Rush Limbaugh, they are not theorists with field experience, but merely entertainers.

  35. First time commenter, but I can’t resist busting out my learnings on this topic. However, Grand Fromage at #30 has it basically right. The problem at the heart of all of the other problems is the lack of central authority, and the difficulty in implementing any sort of central authority. For various reasons, implementing central authority and everything it entails (modernization, etc) has been nigh on impossible for centuries. This is not to say Afghanistan is an inherently backwards country or anything, just that the problems involved in instituting a central government are many and varied, and no one has gotten it entirely right yet.

    Much of the policy in Afghanistan simply focuses on eradicating symptoms, but not the problem itself. And in attempting to take care of the symptoms, the UN and US set up double standards and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type scenarios. For example, the problem of poppy farming in Afghanistan: Afghanistan is currently the source of something like 90% of Europe’s heroin market. The money from sales supports warlords/commanders and some Taliban, in addition to poor farmers who do not see themselves as having any other options. So in 2002 the international community tells the Taliban to ban poppy cultivation, without offering any crop substitutes or recourse for the poor, and they comply. But then the Taliban allegedly benefit from the rise in prices on the opium stockpiles, and the Taliban are blamed for that too. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Now, US allies and enemies alike are involved in the drug trade, but of course the US and international community are avowedly against it. No measures against it can be successfully implemented though, because there’s no central authority strong enough to do it, not to mention how it would cripple the region economically. And back to the first problem again!

    The basic problem with the Taliban is something like that. In many regions, they’re the only thing providing some measure of stability, authority, and services. In other regions, there’s leaders like Ismail Khan (Herat) and General Dostum (Northern Alliance), but they’re our allies despite their human rights violations and involvement in the drug trade. It can’t be boiled down to the extremists versus everyone else.

    So why not talk? It certainly won’t be worse than anything else, because killing them won’t work. It will only perpetuate the underlying problem of a lack of central authority, and will further radicalize the population.

  36. The actual problem here is that there was a great hope, among everyone involved, that following the US Invasion a central Afghan government would be able to bring the Pashtuns into a unity government.

    The areas currently under active fighting in both Pakistan and Afghanistan map well to a theoretical ethnic Pashtunistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was “how far the British were able to effectively exert control without being killed off” (literally – they lost several armies past the Khyber Pass…). The tribesmen never agreed with the border – it’s one reason the Soviet invasion worked so badly, the tribes on both sides in the south worked well together.

    Unfortunately, even though Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, the south never really got on board with the central government. Part of this is Karzai’s fault – he didn’t work well with the Pashtun leaders who’d collaborated with or been neutral towards the Taliban. Nor did he effectively balance out aid distribution, nor did he crack down on corruption or make the point that the drug trade really was anti-Islamic. Much of it is the US’ fault – we didn’t deliver anything near enough aid (in pure dollars, or trained development experts / reconstruction experts etc) to make a difference especially in the South, the Pashtun areas.

    The horrible tragedy of the Bush administration was that starting the war it turned out we really didn’t have to do (Iraq), we got so distracted by the scope of managing after the “victory” there that we lost the peace in Afghanistan, and the Pashtuns decided slowly that we didn’t really care and that they had nothing invested in the central government. That enabled the surviving Taliban (organizational) grouping to reconstitute and along with various non-Taliban Pashtun tribes who rejected the central government mount an effective cross-border insurgency on both sides of the Afghanistan / Pakistan border.

    So… the answer is bimodal, because there are two groups involved. The “Taliban”, the actual active insurgent group who imported Sharia and were sheltering Al Qaeda, should be killed or arrested on sight. The political reality in Pashtun territory is that we need to work with Pashto leaders who can make a difference to find a government solution they and their people can buy into. To the extent that those leaders are aligned with the big-T Taliban right now, that’s talking to someone under the big Taliban tent as it were. But it’s really more of a discussion with the only viable Pashto leadership there is.

    If we conflate the groups then we end up having to kill all the Pashtun peoples to end this, and that’s not acceptable. Among other things, most of the Pashto aren’t interested in exporting violence to Pakistan or the rest of Afghanistan, but they want the US to stop bombing them and don’t want to be subservient to a corrupt and ineffective regime in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. There are certainly people who can be convinced that we’re really only there to get Al Qaeda and the Mullah Omar type Taliban types, and that if they kick those guys out or kill them we’ll leave them alone and not try to impose our will or a Kabul based dictatorial hemegony on them. Those people, we have to talk to, even if they’ve been shooting at us on and off.

    It worked very well in Iraq – we peeled the local tribes entirely away from their alliance of convenience with Al Qaeda in Iraq, defeated them rather completely in fact as a result. Iraq’s Sunni/Shia civil war wasn’t solved by that, but the whole foreign fighters problem was reduced more than an order of magnitude in threat. Those people were killed or arrested or driven out of all the communities in Iraq once we sat down with the local tribes leaders long enough to make them believe that we could be their allies. Even though some of them had been shooting at us.

    Don’t be suprised if the Army and Marines leaders who succeeded in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq get assigned to leadership roles in Afghanistan in short order.

    It’s not exactly the same problem – but it’s similar enough that it’s probably the model we need to try there. Treating the Pashto like honorable human beings and figuring out how to separate the Pashto nationalists from the true Taliban and Al Qaeda wins that war.

  37. Ps – if this sort of stuff really bugs you a lot, and you want to get more background on what’s going on, you can do a lot worse than subscribe to the magazine “Foreign Affairs”, published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Geopolitics and the background situations writ large, and by invitation including many dissenting voices and voices of the governments and major factions abroad in important issues.

    It doesn’t cover everything, and is only so-so on the military details of military campaigns (but I know of no single source in depth on those, you have to read a lot and synthesize a picture yourself…). But it’s very much worth reading. Especially so if you have kids and want to open their eyes to the complexity and scope of the international problems…

  38. #30 has it right.

    Afghans are, on the whole, extremely conservative Muslims, but they were not Salafis/Wahabis/Deobandis (the back-to-the seventh-century Sharia folks) until recently. That development is in large part due to the Saudi money that backed the mujahedin. Afghans used to be conservative Muslims of the tribal custom + Sufism variety. I would imagine that many of them would still be following Sufi pirs if allowed to do so.

    Dunno if the influence of the Deobandis can be rolled back entirely at this point, especially now that military leaders have learned that they can use this ideology to recruit.

    As to the leaders — scratch off the Deobandi veneer and they’re just power-hungry chiefs of the same sort that Pashtun society has been creating for centuries. It’s the same dynamic that created the Mongols and the Timurids. A tribal society, riven by feud, in which clan leaders are constantly jockeying for power. Constant warfare, every man a warrior. Occasionally, some leader comes to the top and manages to unite all the other Pashtuns behind him. The only possible direction is OUT: conquest. They succeed, and then throw it away when the scheming for power starts again. That’s the history of the Afghan state (internal rivalries, warfare, coups, assassinations). That’s what the mujahedin did. That’s what the Taliban would have done, if they had held power long enough. That’s what the current crop of “Taliban” will do if they manage to grab power in the Pashtun areas. A strong, cunning ruthless leader can manage some sort of stability for a few decades, but in the long run, no large state can endure as long it is based on the old tribal ideals.

    IMHO, the only answer is cultural change. For young men to renounce or redirect the warrior ethos.

    The Raj managed it, to some extent, by recruiting Afghans into their armies (as they did the Sikhs and the Gurkhas). I wonder if the modern world can offer something equivalent: elite wilderness firefighters or anti-poaching guards?

  39. Yes, John, we absolutely should talk to them… just long enough to get our troops and our allies troops out of there and leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and whatever Afghans want to fight them for it.

    Why? Because we’re going to lose. We’re already losing. The Soviets tried the “kill lots of Afghans and they’ll give up” approach for 10 years. It didn’t work. As Yasaman pointed out, we had a shot with the Northern Alliance approach, but blew it by attempting to eradicate the livelihoods of many apolitical Afghans when we attempted to wipe out the poppy harvests.

    Sharia looks a lot better than starvation to most people, especially if they’re Muslims already. If Obama is foolish enough to not only attempt to hang onto Afghanistan, but invade Pakistan as well, he may be responsible for the worst military debacle in American history.

  40. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kabul, I think that we should be talking to any and all that want to talk to us. Most just want us to go away. Afghanistan is not, and never really has been a “real” country. The king did rule, but he left a lot of decisions to the tribes. The non communists that followed pretty much left the tribes alone as well. Corruption was, and I’m sure still is, a way of life. Only parts of the country benefited from the foreign aid. When the Soviets invaded, I knew that they would be defeated, the only question was when and how. True, the US helped with arms, but the Afghans would have fought to the last man (and boy) with rocks if that was all they had with which to fight. I was lucky in that the country was relatively peaceful while I was there, so was able to do a lot of traveling, seeing all three of the Buddhas in the Bamian area, as well as the lake at Band – i – Amir. Still, there were many areas that were forbidden to us, as foreigners, partly ’cause for our safety, partly because the government did not want outsiders in certain parts of the country. Lovely people, very harsh and unforgiving land. Michner wrote a novel about the country, which with the usual caveats catches the spirit of the country. It is past my bed time, so I need to stop rambling.

  41. Since talking to chunks (Sunni forces in Al-Anbar province) of the Iraqi Insurgency in 2005 was what helped us start actually _winning_ that war, I would say: really, YES.

  42. We should talk. As others have stated there is a difference between the different groups of Taliban, and as with almost any group the largest will probably be closer to the middle of the road than the extremes. If we can give them another alternative to getting us out of the country other than fighting us, we would have a good chance of stabilizing the country. Essentially we would be gutting the extremes by taking the middle away. Also, there is no possible way all the Taliban are evil and deserve to die. It would be like saying all Christians are evil because Bush allowed torture.

    Plus, the sooner Afghanistan is stabilized the sooner Pakistan can be stabilized. Pakistan being the far bigger problem, as it does have nuclear weapons. It was “genius” to focus on Iraq because they supposedly had nuclear weapons, while chasing the real terrorists from Afghanistan to Pakistan and essentially giving them a country with nuclear weapons. Another 100-150k of troops would have gone a long way towards preventing the distabilization of Pakistan.

  43. I’m willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt on this one. I’m not completely convinced he actually said “I want to negotiate with the Taliban.”

    The source NYT piece said

    Mr. Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. “There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region,” he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.

    Which is a different thing entirely.

    My full thought on this is here.

  44. Is “let’s bomb them first, and blame the survivors for refusing to talk to us ‘modern democracies’ later” the right approach to restore America’s moral autority ?

  45. A memo to all Afghanis and Iraqis who have put their lives on the line to oppose Taliban and Al-Qaeda:


  46. It’s a dumb question. The definition problem makes it so. There is no central embodiment of The Taliban with whom one might negotiate (and I don’t believe in Al Queda as a real ‘organisation’ either), so you’re left with diverse sub-groups and individuals who may or may not identify themselves using the term, depending on circumstances. These you must be prepared to talk to, since the alternatives are (i) “kill them all”, (ii) “lock them all up” and (iii) “let’s get the frac out of here and leave them to it”.

    Neither (i) nor (ii) is, basically, a better (in any sense of the word) solution to the problem than the ‘Final’ solution that I believe was once attempted elsewhere. I draw no other parallel between US and British/European actions in Afghanistan and those of the Nazis, merely suggest that it is morally repugnant to suggest that any group or individual can ever be so de-humanised that we’d rather just dispose of them.

    Adoption of (iii) would be pretty stupid too. The bottom-line outcome has to be a stable and open society in that country if only to deny it as a refuge for those whose malice we need to guard against.

    So yes, you have to talk to them. After you defeat them.

  47. There are lots of reasons to talk to them. First and foremost is to figure out just what it is that they’re trying to accomplish, from their point of view. That’s always the first step in trying to change someone from “Them” to “Us.”

    If nothing else, engaging in dialogue creates a few solid data points. Who do they send to do the talking? Where did they come from? Where did they go after the meeting? In a battle where half of the challenge is figuring out just who is on which side – especially when everyone is wearing the same military-style garb – this could be crucial. Solid intelligence is one thing that has been missing in Afghanistan; we could use more of it.

    There’s a saying: “90% of the world’s problems boil down to a lack of good communication.” The first step in solving any problem is to get the folks involved in the problem talking to each other. So, we talk to the Taliban.

    We maybe wouldn’t have to do this if the bombs and guns were working, but they aren’t. There’s another saying, which is maybe where we are: “When all else fails, try talking to them.”

  48. Lots of informed opinions above, so I’ll leave my uninformed one out.

    The only thing I have to add is that communication only works if there is some common ground to agree on. If the other side just wants to kill all of you, there’s not a lot that talk can accomplish.

  49. I’m basically with the “yeah, sure, let’s try talking” faction here; I won’t waste pixels listing everything others have said above that I agree with.

    A smart guy once said that war is politics by other means. The flip side of this observation is that the things you want to get by fighting wars are sometimes achievable with politics.

  50. I keep trying to think of a reasonable and moderate thing to say, but every time I try I remember things like the Taliban disembowelling and tearing a schoolteacher limb-from-limb for teaching women how to read and write.

    I want to be sensible about this one, but I don’t seem to have it in me right now. I don’t think discourse with radical religious groups who will do this kind of thing can ever lead to anything productive. I hope I’m wrong, but … *shrugs*

  51. A few years ago it was inconceivable that the two sides could ever sit down and discuss peace in Northern Ireland. You’ve not seen hate till you’ve seen Drumcree in July. (shudders)

  52. Boy am I having a larf…

    I remember in 2000 going to a fundraiser to aid women who had to live under the Taliban regime. I remember the horror stories, people talking passionately about “Doing something about them!” All that. These were liberal and progressive types, idealistic individuals, etc.

    Then we went into Taliban with our cruise missiles, and a few years down the line I started hearing the same people calling for an end to the Taliban regime starting to talk about how evil our imperialistic tendencies are, and how we need to just discuss our differences civilly, and then we’ll be fine.

    I don’t like the Taliban. I’m glad they’re out of power. I feel sad that they are probably the closest thing to a stable government in the region. I wouldn’t want to encourage “talking” with them until there were no other options. Letting the Taliban re-take Afghanistan is tantamount to losing yet another war, and puts us right where we began with all this stuff.

    And in that scenario, I can only imagine that a couple of years later I’ll be hearing more again from the progressive-types about how we need to “do something” about the Taliban.




  53. Didn’t we try talking to the Taliban in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. I believe their response was along the lines of “Screw You”

  54. The only alternative, really, is to give war a chance, and hope we can conquer the Taliban militarily and wipe them out. And I don’t think we can do that.

    there are maybe 10,000 hardcore Taliban. There are about 18 million Afghan Pashtun and 28 million Pakistan Pashtun living in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and these Pashtun are where the Taliban are operating.

    What we don’t want to do is turn the war into the US versus the Pashtun. And if we declare war on anyone who identifies themselves as Taliban, works for the Taliban, cooperates with the Taliban, refuses to fight the Taliban, then we start declaring war on all the Pashtun in that area. And that’s a war we can’t win.

    And there is a basic rule for a war to qualify as moral: You have to have a good chance of being able to win it before you start it. If you can’t possibly win, you’re killing people (yours and theirs) for no good reason.

    And if you don’t have a chance of winning it, then you cannot morally fight it. And if you can’t morally fight it, you need to find a way to deal with whatever issue you’re having some non-war way.

    The way it seems to be working is that the hardcore taliban are a small number (ten thousand). They go around and “recruit” Pashtun kids to carry a gun for them for something like 8 bucks a day. And then the kid is “Taliban”, depending on who you ask. The thing is that a lot of these kids are really just Pashtun, and they’d be perfectly willing to NOT carry a Taliban gun if you could pay them 9 bucks a day NOT to.

    But if you kill that Pashtun kid for carrying a Taliban rifle, you just killed a member of a Pashtun tribe. And the members of that tribe may identify the US troops who killed their kid as the enemy and the Taliban who is willing to arm them to fight the US as the enemy of my enemy sort of thing.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that the Taliban isn’t exactly al Queda. Some Pashtun wouldn’t mind being identified as Taliban as long as it meant they followed their version of religion, kept to their rules of tribal honor. They wouldn’t have any interest in mounting a terrorist attack on US soil.

    Al Queda, on the other hand, was really mostly foreigners who went to afghanistan because they saw the Taliban leadership as giving them a place to stay when they got kicked out of Saudi Arabia (when Saddam invaded Kuwait, and US troops started piling up in Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden told the king of Saudi Arabia that his al Queda troops would defend Saudi Arabia. The king told him to stuff it. Bin Laden became openly critical of the king. The king got pissed. Bin Laden fled, which is why he needed a new place to stay)

    There’s al queda who are pretty much all hard-core want to kill US civilians on US soil. Then there’s hardcore taliban who want to wage a religious and territorial war from the Pashtun against Afghanistan and Pakistan central governments and allow al queda among them because they see them as religious allies. And then there are pashtun who identify with some of the religious views of the taliban and dovetail it into their views of tribal honor, but have no interest in attacking US civilians on US soil.

    In short, yeah, we can’t win this one militarily unless we’re willing to carpet bomb 50 million Pashtun into loving us.

  55. Only if what you’re saying to them is, “DIE, Motherf****rs!”

    There are 50 million pashtun in the mountains on the border between afghanistan and pakistan. If 10 percent identify as Taliban, and you kill those 10 percent, what do you think the remaining 90% of the pashtun will do?

  56. I think your simple answer answered a different question: “Is ONLY talking to the Taliban the right approach?”

  57. Then we went into Taliban with our cruise missiles, and a few years down the line I started hearing the same people calling for an end to the Taliban regime starting to talk about how evil our imperialistic tendencies are, and how we need to just discuss our differences civilly, and then we’ll be fine.

    Check your hearing. These are not the same people.

    If we are not willing to hear even our own people correctly, it makes it harder to hear other people correctly.

  58. @ Gwangung

    No, no, I knew these people. Personally. They were one and the same, or we’d been invaded by body-snatchers.

    And “Taliban = Al Qaeda” would be better expressed, perhaps as “Black Panthers = Nation of Yahweh“. Same hardline Islamic fundamentalism, different guys carrying the guns and bombs to enforce it.

    You need to work on your analogies, mate.

  59. During the Cold War didn’t we have an embassy in the USSR the whole time? You gotta talk to folks, brah.

  60. There is one other important issue that nobody seems to have noticed. I didn’t until I thought about it overnight.

    Obama is not sending a message to the (T)aliban or the (t)aliban or even Al Quaeda. He is signalling a new direction for the entire region.

    The suggestion that this administration is open to communication is a diplomatic 180 from the previous administration. This move goes hand-in-hand with the projected closing of “Camp Justice” in Guantanamo, the withdrawl of troops from Iraq, and the prosecution of Blackwater criminals.

    It is a new day folks. Maybe we’ll be able to achieve more if we can convince the Middle East that the US is not bent on destroying them. This is reality-based international relations.

    The previous administration fooled itself into believing the Iraqis would welcome them as liberators. Instead of liberators we were seen as invaders. After all, Saddam was our ally and if we bombed the crap out of our old friends, what could our enemies expect?

  61. As several posters have noticed, “talking” is not the same as “negotiating”. Also “the Taliban”, as such doesn’t exist.

    The British govt “talked” to the IRA in Ireland for decades (including all through the Thatcher – no surrender to terrorists – years). Eventually, a settlement “process” began which has, frankly, transformed Northern Ireland. So, in all honesty John, the answer has to be “yes”.

  62. I wouldn’t want to encourage “talking” with them until there were no other options. Letting the Taliban re-take Afghanistan is tantamount to losing yet another war, and puts us right where we began with all this stuff.

    I think you have an overinflated sense of what we can “let” and what we can’t. I thin that overinflated sense is what gets the United States in trouble in insurgent wars.

  63. Ridiculous to expect sweeping socioeconomic change of a people by shooting at them.

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