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Talks With the Taliban: First Failure, Then Humiliation

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since it became apparent several years ago that both the Afghan and Pakistani states were either unable or unwilling to wage full-on war against the Taliban groups that plague both countries, the word on every diplomat's list has been "talks." Sitting down with the Taliban, the theory went, was the only way to end the war in Afghanistan and bring peace to the country's eastern neighbor, Pakistan. The Taliban may be a band of murderous thugs, but you should not refuse to talk to people simply because they are evil. Force wasn't working; this was the only remaining option. And Taliban spokesmen claimed that the groups they represented were ready for dialogue. (Update: The Washington Post is now reporting that the United States is limiting drone strikes in Pakistan while the country pursues negotiations.)

Well, it is now 2014, and the United States is set to pull the vast majority--and perhaps all--of its forces from Afghanistan. And where are we with the much vaunted talks? Nowhere.

The failure is not proof that force is the answer to every problem, or that negotiating with unsavory people is by definition a mistake. But the push for talks with these particular unsavory people has now surpassed the point of no returns and reached the point of deep embarrassment and humiliation. Diplomats and statesman continue to push hard for talks...and the Taliban simply refuses to negotiate in good faith, or with the intent to make peace. Think of the Taliban as a high schooler intent on flirting with you, and absolutely opposed to dating you. At a certain point, it becomes humiliating to keep asking for a night out to dinner and a movie.

First to Afghanistan: The New York Times's blockbuster story on Tuesday, which revealed Hamid Karzai's secret negotiations with the Taliban, has been met with much hand wringing and anger. The Afghan president, who has been unwilling to sign a long-term security agreement with the Americans, has actually been going behind the American government's back and attempting to woo the Taliban. The report of these secret contacts at least go some way to explaining Karzai's rather bizarre and erratic behavior. As the Times states: 

The secret contacts appear to help explain a string of actions by Mr. Karzai that seem intended to antagonize his American backers, Western and Afghan officials said. In recent weeks, Mr. Karzai has continued to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement with Washington that he negotiated, insisted on releasing hardened Taliban militants from prison and distributed distorted evidence of what he called American war crimes.

These actions have enraged American officials, as has the idea that Karzai would reach out to groups that are killing Afghans and American soldiers. But what's truly embarrassing and maddening about Karzai's unilateral initiative is that it is, er, absolutely pointless. As the Times reports: "The clandestine contacts with the Taliban have borne little fruit, according to people who have been told about them. But they have helped undermine the remaining confidence between the United States and Mr. Karzai, making the already messy endgame of the Afghan conflict even more volatile." Even worse: 

The peace contacts, though, have yielded no tangible agreement, nor even progressed as far as opening negotiations for one. And it is not clear whether the Taliban ever intended to seriously pursue negotiations, or were simply trying to derail the security agreement by distracting Mr. Karzai and leading him on, as many of the officials said they suspected.

Karzai's move was not just nefarious; it was dumb. As the Times notes: 

Why would the insurgency agree to talks if doing so would ensure the presence of the foreign troops it is determined to expel?

A good question--and one that those who want to talk might mull over.

Across the "border" in Pakistan, things look equally bleak. The incumbent government, headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is all set to embark on talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which to date has killed tens of thousands of Pakistani citizens. The problems with such an approach are numerous: the Taliban does not accept Pakistan's government as legitimate; the Talibs have shown no willingness to curb terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets; and any compromise with such groups would presumably undermine the foundations of the Pakistani state, which should be able to exert control over its territory, and which should not need to negotiate with a bunch of murderers who have a nebulous and sinister agenda. (Imagine the United States government negotiating with a collection of fascist nutbags over who gets to control a chunk of western Idaho. The very thought of it is embarassing.)

The push for peace talks in Pakistan is being led by the opposition leader and former cricket star Imran Khan, who seems to think that Pakistan was more peaceful than Sweden before drone attacks, and who thinks the Taliban are a consequence, rather than a cause, of the war on terrorism. There is almost nothing that Imran does not blame on drones and unnamed outsiders, including attacks on minority Shia Muslims, or just general Taliban violence. If there is any irony deriving from the fact that the violence is actually being done by entities--the Taliban, its terrorist allies--that right-wing Pakistanis and their military masters have done so much to nurture and arm, and that which now seem so enamored of Khan himself, it is lost (as is so much else) on the former playboy. 

Thus, in the context of Pakistani politics, blathering on and on about talks is actually a way of shirking the real things that are tearing apart Pakistani society: ethnic violence, religious extremism, and intolerance. But rather than take these forces on in a direct way, politicians continue to push talks. Babar Sattar, one of the country's best columnists, has an excellent rundown of all the instances in which "deals" with extremists have broken down, thanks to their unwillingness to actually follow through. But Sharif and his government keep pathetically begging for sit-downs with an entity that remains intent on killing Pakistanis without care or remorse. (Tuesday's big suicide attack was in Peshawar; nine dead, fifty injured.) 

(A even more cynical take on the strategy of the Pakistani government would be this: most of the people dying live outside of Punjab, the province of the country that houses the business, political, and military elite. As long as their wealth and safety isn't threatened, then so what if some people from Balochistan or Sindh or Peshawar die every day? Why rock an already unstable boat? This may be shortsighted--especially if the Taliban and its allies keep gaining strength--but it makes short-term sense.)

Is there anything that the Taliban and its allies can do to make the leaders of either country believe that it is not interested in talks or negotiation? Is there anything that can put an end to this pathetic spectacle? Commentators are prone to overstating things like "honor" and "toughness" but it can't be good for the people of either Pakistan or Afghanistan to see their leaders bowing down before groups that would enslave and kill them and their constituents. 2014 is going to be a long year.