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Why is the US so desperate to talk to the Taliban?

Zia Sarhadi

Talk about desperation; the Americans are falling over themselves to talk to the Taliban but the Afghans are in no hurry to meet, even if offered lamb kebab and rice as inducement. Carefully planted rumors in the media by American officials have been circulating for years. “Taliban representatives have secretly met US officials in Saudi Arabia;” according to one of such report. Others have claimed meetings have taken place in Turkey, Qatar or even Germany. The Taliban have vehemently denied all such reports. One is inclined to accept the Taliban version because past US claims have come to naught.

What is curious about these claims is that while the Americans are exerting pressure on the Pakistani government to track down and hand over Taliban leaders allegedly “hiding” in Quetta, at the same time they want to talk to them. Maybe, the Americans are thinking of getting the Pakistanis to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. If that is the case, what is the explanation for claims that Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Michael Steiner is moderating the talks, the latest round of which took place on May 7 and 8 in Germany, according to a report in Der Spiegel on May 22? Such reports could not have been published unless they were authorized by US officials. Further, there have been claims by some US newspapers referring to several rounds of talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar.

Typical of these was Karen De-Young’s piece in the Washington Post on May 16 under the heading, US speeds up direct talks with Taliban, alluding to failed talks last year when a goat-herder posing as a Taliban representative had taken a free ride in a NATO plane and bilked the Americans of millions of dollars. It took several days before the Americans caught on. In all fairness to the Americans, it is difficult to tell one Afghan from another. They all wear baggy pants and a tunic, have long beards and have not washed in months, smelling not exactly like roses. So it is difficult to apply the smell test to them.

Ms. DeYoung, however, assured her readers that “…the Obama administration is ‘getting more sure’ that the contacts currently underway are with those who have a direct line to [Taliban leader Mulla] Omar and influence in the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, or ruling council, he heads, according to one of several senior U.S. officials who discussed the closely held initiative only on the condition of anonymity.” The question is, how can these officials be sure?

Ms. DeYoung went on: “The officials cautioned that the discussions were preliminary. But they said ‘exploratory’ conversations, first reported in February by the New Yorker magazine, have advanced significantly in terms of the substance and the willingness of both sides to engage.” True, it takes two to tango but what if the Taliban do not know how to tango? Houston, you have a problem!

The Americans’ problem may be more structural. The word taliban is plural, from the singular talib, meaning a madrasah student. Maybe, the Americans should begin to address the Taliban in plural. It is quite possible the group may take the Americans more seriously then. But let us continue with Ms. DeYoung’s narration. She wrote: “The Taliban, one U.S. official said, is ‘going to have to talk to both the Afghans and the Americans’ if the process is to proceed to the point that it would significantly affect the level of violence and provide what the Taliban considers an acceptable share of political power in Afghanistan.” Try writing that the Taliban are “going to have to talk to both the Afghans and the Americans…” Now that would be progress. In fairness to the Americans, they have already made major concessions; they are admitting that the Taliban are the principal players in Afghanistan. That is why US officials are saying the Taliban will have to talk to other Afghans as well as to the Americans. Nobody is talking about Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as being the principal decision-maker or how much power he is willing to concede. The Taliban will decide how much power, if any, they want to share with others.

If one recalls, the Americans had gone into Afghanistan in October 2001 to bomb the hell out of the Taliban, driving them out of Kabul with their daisy cutters and 1,000-pound bombs. When then US President George Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden or else, the Taliban leader asked for proof of Osama’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks and expressed willingness to meet and talk. Bush had famously replied: “We will see you in Kabul.” His bombers went in blowing the country beyond the Stone Age.

Nearly ten years later, it is the Americans that want to talk and the Taliban are refusing. They may not have daisy cutters or 1,000-pound bombs but they have shown even with their primitive weapons that they can bring a self-proclaimed superpower to its knees. So what has happened in the 10-year period that the Americans are begging for talks?

American eagerness to talk to the Taliban can be understood from the ground realities in Afghanistan. A study conducted by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) in April found almost 90% of men in contested districts in southern Afghanistan believe foreign military operations are bad for them. More than half the people polled also said their opinion of foreign troops was more negative than a year earlier. This came in the wake of President Barack Obama’s 30,000 troop surge announced in December 2009 to retake critical areas from the Taliban. This has not happened and a crucial deadline is approaching. In July, American commanders have to make recommendations to Obama about what to do next. Arm-chair warriors in Washington want to continue the bombing campaign until American-style democracy has been delivered to the Afghans but US troops on the ground are finding it tough going. After spending several weeks in Afghanistan, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine said he never once heard an American soldier or commander mention the word “victory”. This should give some cause for reflection despite the rhetorical flights of fancy Americans are prone to indulge in.

There are other equally pressing concerns in Washington. One is the financial cost of the war that has drained the US economy. According to American economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmas, the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US $4 trillion. Given the financial tsunami that swept America in October 2008 whose devastating effects are still being felt by millions of Americans, there is less appetite for war than there was three years ago. Not surprisingly, support appears to be growing in Washington for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, where violence has reached a record high after almost 10 years of fighting.

Trouble is not confined to southern Afghanistan, the traditional stronghold of the Taliban. On May 18, for instance, 12 people were killed and 80 injured in Taloqan, capital of Takhar province in northeast Afghanistan. Residents were protesting the killing of four people in a NATO raid when police opened fire on a crowd of 2,000. Among the dead in the overnight NATO airstrike were two women. On May 28, a suicide bomber disguised as a policeman killed General Daud Daud, police commander for northern Afghanistan, and seriously wounded the German General Markus Kneip in Takhar. The issue of civilian deaths has become extremely contentious and is the major cause of resistance in Afghanistan. Some columnists are urging the US to consider Osama’s killing as an opportunity to get out of Afghanistan.

It will be interesting to see which side in this debate wins: the realists or arm-chair warriors?

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