The obstacles to "successful" negotiations with the Taliban are many and daunting.
Should the United States negotiate directly with the Taliban in order to bring about an end to the war in Afghanistan?
More to the point: is it even possible to do so and be successful?
The answer to the first question was given by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he confirmed that the US had already established "preliminary contacts" with the Taliban in order to facilitate negotiations. The talks, thought to have been initiated at the beginning of this year, parallel the ongoing talks with the Taliban that are being conducted by the Karzai government.
As for answering the second question, almost all observers believe it is impossible to negotiate with Mullah Omar and "Taliban Central," but that there might be a chance for success engaging local Taliban groups in order to convince them to lay down their arms.
But perhaps the ultimate question that needs to be asked is: should we even be negotiating with a terrorist enemy? The thought of holding talks with the Taliban angers some of our troops, and some proponents of our mission in Afghanistan believe that it is premature at best to be thinking of negotiating an exit from Afghanistan.
What is driving the urge to negotiate? Clearly, the administration wants most of America's 150,000 troops out of Afghanistan, or scheduled to leave, by Election Day in 2012. The war has become a political millstone and could become an issue in the campaign if progress toward an American exit can't be demonstrated by the president. And the quickest way to achieve that goal is to broker a power sharing deal between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai that would obviate the need for US combat troops.
The obstacles to successful negotiations are many and daunting:
1. Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership will never compromise
Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution puts it succinctly: "[T]he problem is that [the Taliban] leadership is not likely to do a deal because these are pretty hard-core ideologues and there's really no evidence [that they're willing to compromise]...it takes two to tango."
Indeed it does. There also has to be an incentive for Omar to talk because as it stands now, all he has to do is be patient and wait until the US draw-down of troops reaches a point where it would be difficult to stop his fighters from taking over large swaths of the country.
CNN's terrorism expert Peter Bergen is even more pessimistic. Pointing out that Mullah Omar's title is "Commander of the Faithful," Bergen observes that the title means he is not only a commander of the Taliban, but of all Muslims. "This suggests that Mullah Omar is not only a religious fanatic, but also a fanatic with significant delusions of grandeur...Negotiations with religious fanatics who have delusions of grandeur generally do not go well," writes Bergen.
2. Who are we negotiating with?
If not Mullah Omar, just who is it that we are talking to? Therein lays the biggest obstacle to negotiations.
Talks with the Taliban might be likened to the way the US government negotiated with some Native American tribes in the 19th century. Negotiators would gather 3 or 4 local chiefs together and reach an agreement that was supposed to be observed by an entire tribe. But some tribal groups will be invariably left out of the process and might refuse to go along with the deal, leading to misunderstandings and war.
Something similar faces US and Afghan negotiators when talking to the Taliban. The Telegraph's diplomatic editor Praveen Swami lists the members of the Taliban with which the Afghan government has held sporadic talks in recent months, pointing out that it is composed of "middle-aged men who have been away from the front line for years." Swami quotes noted Taliban expert Thomas Ruttig who believes that leadership is changing hands to a "younger, more radical generation of Taliban commanders" who, because they have served in combat recently, carry more influence than any of the Taliban figures with which the Karzai government has talked in the last few years.
Finally, neither the US government nor the government of Afghanistan know for sure to whom they are speaking. There was an embarrassing incident last year in which an impostor traveled in a NATO plane to Kabul posing as an important Taliban leader. He accepted a large amount of cash, was feted by the Afghan government, until his ruse was exposed.
3. Only sustained military pressure will bring the Taliban to heel
Secretary Gates believes that there is no prospect for quick progress in any talks with the Taliban. “My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter,” said Gates. The "fighting seasons" in Afghanistan are the spring and summer which means that any pressure we can place on the Taliban before winter sets in could lead to some kind of preliminary talks. Former Obama adviser on Afghanistan Bruce Riedel describes the effort so far as "contacts about contacts, trying to figure out whether the people willing to talk on the Taliban side represent anyone other than themselves.”
"I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure and begin to believe that they can't win before they're willing to have a serious conversation," said Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO supreme allied commander. But Long War Journal's Bill Roggio says that even with the surge, we are a long way from applying that kind of pressure.
Roggio, who has made several trips to Afghanistan to report on conditions there, writes that "even with the US pressure in Helmand and Kandahar the past year, the Taliban still control vast areas of the east and north, as well as pockets in the south." He also mentioned the safe haven given to Taliban fighters by Pakistan as another reason it is difficult to pressure the enemy.
4. It will be difficult to get any assistance from Pakistan
Why do we need Pakistan's help to negotiate with the Taliban? The enemy's leadership lives in the province of Balochistan in the city of Quetta where the Taliban leadership council, or Shura, meets. As recent history has shown, Pakistani intelligence has some connections to Taliban leadership and might convince the latter to negotiate with the US.
But Pakistan is still stinging from the bin Laden raid, as well as other incidents that have caused a lot of friction in our relationship. Suffice it to say that the Pakistani military is in no mood at the present to do us any favors.
Ultimately, the question of leaving Afghanistan precipitously comes up when discussing the wisdom of talking to implacable enemies whose fanatical hatred of Americans would prevent them from compromising. The fact is, the army and police forces we are training to take over when all American combat troops are supposed to leave in 2014 are nowhere near ready, and have demonstrated little stomach so far to engage the Taliban in the areas assigned to them.
This is why the initial draw-down of US forces should be minimal, as the Pentagon is recommending. The president is set to announce his decision on Wednesday, but the pace of withdrawal would ideally hinge on the success - or failure - of negotiations with the Taliban. But the political pressure coming from even his own party to speed the withdrawal is intense, making any measured actions by the president problematic.
But there is a case to be made that it is far too soon to be pulling out of Afghanistan -- negotiations or not. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, writing in the Weekly Standard, make the point that if the ultimate goal of the war is to defeat not just the Taliban, but al-Qaeda as well, we must continue a high level of pressure on the Taliban in order to see our counter-insurgency strategy in Pakistan succeed:
Moreover, al-Qaeda is not finished because of bin Laden’s death. Senior leaders continue to live and work in Pakistan, coordinating operations with other al-Qaeda franchises around the world to attack Americans and America. What is the strategy for finishing this fight if we abandon Afghanistan prematurely or put progress toward stabilizing that country at risk?
The Kagans discern a connection between fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and destroying al-Qaeda in Pakistan. "Any rationalization that relies on separating those two undertakings is, in fact, misinformed and dangerous." There is a symbiotic relationship that, if broken by a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, would make our counter-insurgency efforts in Pakistan useless.
But political considerations appear to be the driving force in our attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. And there doesn't seem to be any stomach in the administration - or on the Hill - for much else.