On May 1, 2012 President Barack Obama announced a new agreement between the United States and Afghanistan at Bagram Air Force Base. The President outlined a fairly modest exit strategy in which he confirmed the departure of 23,000 American combat troops by 2014, emphasized the training of 352,000 Afghani soldiers by U.S. personnel, and committed both American military and financial support to Afghanistan over the next decade.
But before President Hamid Karzai could say As-Salāmu `alaikum, conservative pundits and commentators were already crying foul. Specifically, their outcry stemmed from President Obama’s first public admission that his administration has been in direct talks with the Taliban. Furthermore the President hinted at the possibility of a negotiated peace between the U.S. and the Taliban, provided the extremist group breaks from al-Qaeda, renounces violence, and obeys Afghani law (which now includes provisions for respecting the human rights of women). Alas, in the warped minds of the right-wing blogosphere Mr. Obama’s actions have, once again, destroyed America.
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens suggested that the President is living in a fantasy world. Talk radio king Rush Limbaugh, in superb hyperbolic fashion, compared President Obama’s olive branch to a Rabbi’s misguided attempt to convert Hitler from the dark side. Even my hawkish roommate dared to utter the five magic words of Ronald Regan: you don’t negotiate with terrorists.
As a defender of reason, I (like MLK or George Carlin before me) believe it is my solemn duty to light a candle in the dark rather than simply curse the darkness. So let there be light.
First and foremost, the Taliban is NOT the same as al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a militant Islamic group founded by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s, bent on global jihad via terrorism. In contrast, the Taliban is a militant political group, initially founded by conservative students, who mobilized to counteract Afghani lawlessness following the failed Soviet Union invasion of 1979. From the beginning, the Taliban’s ultimate goal was the consolidation of power and had no political aspirations beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Even their refusal in 2001 to hand over Osama bin Laden was more or less an act of national sovereignty rather than an explicit vote of confidence in 9/11.
Ironically enough, it was not until the implementation of the Bush doctrine that made no distinction between “terrorists and those who harbor them” that the Taliban became a potential threat to U.S. interests. To stave off annihilation the Taliban forged an uneasy alliance of necessity with al-Qaeda, which subsequently led to an on-going insurgency. Therefore not only is talking to the Taliban politically expedient, it is also tactically sound.
In 2011 New York University’s Center on International Cooperation released a road map to peace by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, two researchers based out of Kandahar who have worked in Afghanistan since 2006. Both Linschoten and Kuehn recommended political engagement with the Taliban, and argued that the continuation of an amorphous U.S. foreign policy that conflates the Taliban with al-Qaeda would lead to “a more radical and leaderless insurgency.”
Even if the Taliban rejects President Obama’s proposal, the attempt could still yield rewards with the Afghani people, who after living through the reality of a ten-year war have probably started to lament the demise of the brutal, but orderly rule of the Taliban. The importance of goodwill cannot be over-emphasized, especially after that rogue American soldier murdered sixteen Afghanis.
But even if all of these facts could conveniently disappear by way of Palin pixie dust, I must remind the conservatively inclined that the real world is not Die Hard — and that contrary to the fantasies of the NRA and George Zimmerman, you actually cannot solve every problem with a gun, a bald-headed white guy, and cinematically perverted Bing Crosby quotes. So what do I say to those who believe the President should never negotiate with terrorists? I say simply that President Obama has negotiated with Republicans; obviously the man is an idealist.