It's Time for America to Negotiate With the Taliban

Direct talks are the least bad, and maybe only, way to wind down the Afghan War -- but it has to include Pakistan

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Captured Taliban insurgents and their weapons are presented to the media in Ghazni province / Reuters

As American officials scramble to contain the fallout from an appalling video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, news that the Obama administration is carrying out secret negotiations with the Taliban has barely registered on the American political landscape. The lack of interest in the talks - and public outrage at the video - reflects how little Americans apparently care about the conflict, despite its staggering human and fiscal cost.

Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed at least 8,000 Afghan civilians, 5,500 Afghan police and soldiers, 1,800 American soldiers and 900 soldiers from other nations.

Thousands of Taliban fighters have died as well, according to American military estimates, but no reliable figure exists. While suffering heavy casualties in set-piece battles, the Taliban have excelled at suicide attacks, roadside bombs and propaganda that portrays American forces as abusive occupiers. The video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses - a hugely offensive act to Muslims and a potential war crime - will only reinforce that image.

"The chances of success are low, but given tepid American public support for the war, talking to the Taliban is the right step"

The United States, meanwhile, has spent $345 billion in Afghanistan over the last decade, with the overwhelming majority funding U.S. military operations, not imperative but largely overlooked civilian aid efforts. The war in Iraq, by comparison, cost almost twice as much, $673 billion, and featured the same sweeping focus on military efforts.

Across the political spectrum in Washington, there is little interest in engaging with the difficult but vital questions of the post-Arab spring. How can the U.S. devise ways to more consistently, quietly and effectively back moderate Muslims? Calls from the far left and far right for completely disengaging from the Greater Middle East are a fantasy. For decades to come, the American and world economies will rely on the region's oil.

And when it comes to Afghanistan, few are bothered by how America leaves. They just want it to happen quickly.

Opposition to the Iraq war made it chic for Democrats to be isolationist. Liberals who defend human rights glibly dismiss Afghanistan as nothing more than a quagmire. There is little acknowledgement of the gains Afghan moderates and women have made over the past decade, or the brutal payback a triumphant Taliban could mete out against them.

On the usually martial right, the Republican Party is split. John Huntsman and Ron Paul want an immediate pullout. Newt Gingrich has flip-flopped. And front-runner Mitt Romney opposes talks of any kind.

Romney is wrong. The chances of success are low, but given tepid American public support for the war, talking to the Taliban is the right step.

By any measure, many Taliban are reprehensible. They brutally ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and sheltered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda members as they planned the 9/11 attacks. According to the latest United Nations figures, Taliban attacks - primarily suicide and roadside bombings - caused 80 percent of the 1,462 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011.

Over the past decade, they have assassinated hundreds of moderate Afghans who were trying to stabilize the country. They have also kidnapped scores of Afghans and foreigners, including myself and two Afghan colleagues held captive for seven months in 2008 and 2009.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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