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Best course for dealing with the Taliban: Win, then negotiate

Afghan women listen to a female election worker, right, as they wait for voter registration cards in Kabul on Sunday.
Afghan women listen to a female election worker, right, as they wait for voter registration cards in Kabul on Sunday. (Musadeq Sadeq/associated Press)
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By Michael Gerson
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Wikileaks document download -- illustrating Afghan corruption, Pakistani duplicity and Taliban toughness -- revealed little that is new. But it will intensify a popular kind of desperation.

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A consensus is growing among foreign policy realists, skittish NATO allies and antiwar activists that the time has come to cut a deal with the Taliban. The Afghan government, they argue, is hopeless; recent elections were discrediting; nation-building has failed. The only hope is to pursue not only reintegration of low- and mid-level Taliban fighters into Afghan society but reconciliation with Taliban leaders based in Pakistan. As long as these leaders end their relationship with al-Qaeda -- the only firm, non-negotiable red line -- the Taliban could return to effective control of southern Afghanistan in a more decentralized system.

Some Afghans are preparing for this prospect -- particularly those who find themselves on the wrong side of the red line. "Women are living in great fear for a peace deal with the Taliban because of what it will mean for their rights," says the manager of an Afghan woman's shelter. In areas controlled by the Taliban, schools for girls are shut down, women are terrorized for working outside the home, and female politicians and activists are attacked and murdered. A typical "night letter" from the Taliban reads: "We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and we shall set fire to your daughter." An Afghan women's rights activist recently explained to Human Rights Watch, "Every woman activist who has raised her voice in the last 10 years fears [the Taliban] will kill us."

This debate is a conflict not only of two policy views but of two worlds. Recently, I attended a meeting of diplomats, foreign policy experts and journalists at which a diplomatic settlement with the Taliban was broadly endorsed. The participants admitted that some regrettable abuses would result. But Afghanistan, in the general view, had become a costly distraction from issues such as Iran and North Korea. Best to cut our losses and get out. Around the polished table, every participant was a well-dressed Western man, casually condemning millions of poor and powerless women to fear and slavery.

Supporters of a settlement with the Taliban respond that they are just facing reality -- that protecting the rights of Afghan women is desirable; it is simply not possible. In truth, they know no such thing. Those who predict defeat in Afghanistan significantly overlap with those who confidently predicted defeat in Iraq. Their military judgments merit some skepticism, particularly when American commanders are pursuing a new strategy in Afghanistan they believe may succeed. We should be suspicious of a realism that always amounts to defeatism.

The prospect of serious negotiations with the Taliban does not seem particularly realistic. If America were to insist on protections for the rights of women, ethnic minorities and civil society as preconditions for power-sharing discussions with the Taliban, it would probably be a deal-breaker. As it stands, the Taliban has every reason to think that it wins by enduring. A panting desire for a hasty deal only encourages this belief. Coming to the table at this point, the Taliban would have little motivation to make concessions on the most fundamental aspects of its ideology.

If the coalition does not insist on the protection of human rights as a precondition for negotiations, the whole thing gets much easier. It is always easy to end a conflict by giving in to the enemy. Reconciliation with the Taliban from a position of weakness -- granting the Taliban control over portions of the country -- bears a close resemblance to surrender. No paper assurances could hide the reality that America, under military pressure from Islamist radicals, had betrayed millions of Afghan men and women into comprehensive tyranny.

When asked last month about the possibility of an American settlement with the Taliban, CIA Director Leon Panetta responded: "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society. We've seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they're convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful."

This is the realistic alternative: Win first, then negotiate.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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