In a presidential campaign where foreign policy has taken a back seat, it’s beginning to look as if there soon may be a new and potentially hot issue: talks with the Afghan Taliban. After months of secret contacts, the Obama administration has begun briefing reporters around Washington about a plan to open negotiations with the faction of the Taliban based in Quetta, Pakistan.
Here’s the sensational part: As a first move, the Taliban would open a new office in Doha, Qatar — and the Obama administration would allow the transfer to home arrest there of five senior Taliban leaders now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
If it happens — and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that no final decision had been made — the release of the Taliban chiefs is likely to be a polarizing move in Washington, and an inviting target for Republican presidential candidates. Already my colleague Marc Thiessen has weighed in, citing U.S. military accounts of the men’s terrorist credentials and warning that if President Obama frees them, he “will do tremendous harm to American national security — and to his prospects for reelection this fall.”
Not only conservatives will offer this critique. Human rights groups will likely squawk over the transfer of Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban army chief of staff implicated in heinous war crimes. Many believe Fazl and his comrades should be put on trial — something that likely will never happen once he is in the custody of Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate that takes a tolerant view of Islamic extremist groups.
So if the administration goes forward, it will be an act of some political courage; Obama must realize he will be creating an easy attack ad. But in substance, will he be doing the right thing? The White House, as well as Clinton at State, clearly thinks so. They are convinced that a political settlement with the Taliban is the only solution to the war, and that meeting the Quetta faction’s demand for the release of the Guantanamo leader is the key to launching the process.
They may be right. But beyond the distasteful act of effectively paroling extremists who have been implicated in mass murder, the administration’s initiative begs some hard questions.
The most obvious: What will the United States or the Afghan government — which has accepted the plan for talks only reluctantly — get in exchange for the transfer of the Taliban leaders? So far, what the administration’s briefers are talking about sounds pretty meager. The Taliban might issue a statement condemning international terrorism or expressing openness to a political settlement.
The former would be nothing new: The Taliban government under Mullah Omar insisted before and after Sept. 11, 2001, that it rejected international terrorism — even as it hosted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As for a settlement, the Quetta Taliban have offered no indication it would ever accept the democratic institutions and women’s rights spelled out in the current Afghan constitution. On Thursday, the group issued a statement saying that it rejected any recognition of the constitution or the “stooge Kabul administration” of President Hamid Karzai.
A second question is whether the talks would have the effect of reviving a group that the U.S. military has on the ropes. The Quetta faction’s forces, which operate in southern Afghanistan, have been devastated by American offensives since the “surge” of 2010.Talks could put them back in the center of the struggle over Afghanistan’s future — and revive the morale of their ground forces.
Meanwhile, the Taliban faction that currently poses the most serious military threat — the Haqqani group, based in Pakistan’s tribal territories and backed by the Pakistani military — would be left out. An attempt by the administration to engage it diplomatically failed last summer.
Finally, what of the administration’s central contention — that, as The Post quoted one official saying, all wars “end in a political process” and that “this one is no exception”? Well, it’s obviously not true. Setting aside the biggest war in world history — World War II — there are plenty of examples of civil wars and insurgencies that ended not in a settlement but in victory for one side or another. In 2009, the government of Sri Lanka finally wiped out the Tamil Tigers, whose fanatical leader, like Mullah Omar, was incapable of political compromise.
A more honest formulation of the administration’s position might be: Since U.S. and NATO forces are committed to ending combat operations in Afghanistan in less than three years, a political settlement is the only way out. The problem is that this logic contains the seeds of its own undoing. If the Taliban knows Western forces are leaving, it has no incentive to settle — but negotiations will allow it to survive until then.