Before we can talk to the enemy, the U.S. may need a frank discussion of its own
"Western diplomats, Taliban leaders and the Afghan government," The New York Times recently explained, "have begun to take a hard look at what it would take to start a negotiation to end the fighting." The details of what they report -- about the demands of both sides, about preconditions for talks to happen, and about necessary outcomes once talks are concluded -- are the subject of much discussion in Washington's foreign policy circles this week, including a major report released by the Century Foundation. It may well be the only realistic option left for ever ending the war (even with the especially brutal Haqqani network). But, nearly a decade into this war, the prospect of even opening negotiations with the Taliban can still inspire in many Americans a sense of outrage, fear, and, at times, even betrayal. If negotiation is indeed the best or only way to end the war, there are many difficult and important questions to be answered: What will be the Taliban's role in governance? Do NATO forces remain, and how long? How will free and fair be guaranteed? But there's another looming question: Is Washington, and the U.S. as a whole, ready, politically and culturally, to negotiate with the Taliban, the same group that sheltered al-Qaeda before and after September 11, 2001, to end the war that has already claimed so many lives?
Before we can truly commit ourselves to negotiations, there are a number of potential problems we must solve at home. One such problem is the assumptions we assign to talking with the Taliban. A number of human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, frame this as a binary choice: negotiate with the Taliban, or protect the rights of women. But the idea of negotiating with the Taliban is not directly related to the plight of Afghanistan's women -- there's no reason to assume that women's rights would be cast aside as a prerequisite to the talks. If anything, this could be an opportunity to place women's rights within the larger negotiating agenda. However, that would require both the U.S. and the Taliban to order their priorities and decide how to weigh women's rights among the other issues that would be discussed in the course of a negotiated settlement. That's not an easy thing to do, but with violence against women still ongoing in Afghanistan, the best course for ending such human rights abuses may be the same course for ending the war itself: negotiation.
What could also complicate American willingness to engage in peace talks is the hard fact that, ultimately, we are not the lead party. This is between Afghans: the Taliban and Hamid Karzai's government. Any negotiations process must be endorsed, but not driven by, the United States in order to work. The U.S. cannot and should not exert too much influence over the details of any deal, or it will risk undermining the popular authority of the agreement with the Afghan people -- including the lower ranks of the Taliban.. The U.S. taking a secondary role in the negotiations is going to make them far less attractive to already wary Americans.
Within the Afghan government itself, there is a growing disagreement over the necessity of peace talks -- driven, at least in part, by the unintentional disenfranchisement of Pashtuns in the Parliamentary elections, which put far more Tajiks and Hazaras in the Wolesi Jirga than there would have been in an open election.