Talking With Adversaries

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If the Taliban are ready to talk, Washington should listen carefully, ponder deeply, consult widely, and edge cautiously toward the door. Afghans may love their country, but it is no place for Americans. Try not to step on the flowers as you leave.
With actual talks (cover the ears of the womenfolk!) apparently starting between the Taliban (agent, or apparently so it would appear to some of the originals of the American frontier, of the devil) and the representatives of globalization/capitalism/U.S.-style middle-class capitalism/imperialism, I overheard on the radio a commentary denouncing the very idea of compromise. Evidently, though the speaker did not put it in so many words, there could not possibly, in the minds of the rational, be any room whatsoever for tolerating the concept of the world’s last superpower reasoning together with the people who actually live in the land where the U.S. military is waging war.
To avoid the issue of why Washington should not talk to people who actually live on the ground it marches across, the speaker hastened to make the bald and unsubstantiated claim that bin Laden was leader of the Taliban. It is certainly true that U.S. behavior has been pushing al Qua’ida and the Taliban into each other’s arms over the last decade, but flatly to assert that a local dissident movement and a global terrorist organization constitute a single organization is, to put it very politely, dangerously misleading. Even the speaker felt forced to admit that the Taliban was factionalized, only to slide over that admission and reach a conclusion he himself had just undermined: that no hope of compromise or progress could possibly come from talking.
Note that this speaker, evidently one of those provincials now striding so brashly across the American political landscape who puts all his faith in force as the way to solve problems, evidently believed that it was precisely the tendency of the Taliban to rely on force that made talking with them so useless.  The sad thing is that in the aftermath of a decade of being taught that Americans speak the language of force, the American provincial may understand the Afghan provincials better than I wish to admit.
So not for an instant do I anticipate either an easy chat nor a U.S. victory out of negotiations with the Taliban. But the course the U.S. has been on since 9/11, a course as yet unchanged by that Champion of Change now in the White House, is one of destruction abroad and decline at home leading into a dense fog through which I can see the shimmering vision of helicopters lifting from embassy rooftops. Spare me; once in a lifetime is enough.
The Taliban is a complex and ever-adapting group of more-or-less united local factions stuck in cooperation with an international millenarian movement. Not only has significant evidence of discord between Afghans and Arabs come to view over the years, but the logic of the situation suggests that many will find it in their interest to walk through doors should the U.S. decide to open them.
Talking will admittedly accomplish little on its own. Washington will have to bite some bullets ahead of time and temper its hubris with wisdom. The issue is not what Washington wants from the Taliban but what Washington is willing to concede, and that surely will have to start with that which most firmly pushes the Taliban into al Qua’ida’s embrace: the presence of U.S. forces on Afghan soil.
Speaking only the language of force is like voluntarily tying one arm behind one’s back at the start of a wrestling match. American provincials and American imperialists who advocate such an approach are doing their country no favor. Negotiations are explorations or, if you prefer, poker matches. Tehran’s presence at Western discussions about Afghanistan just put a new card in Obama’s hand. Now the apparent new willingness of senior Taliban officials to talk puts another card in his hand. There will be no results by election day or even by Christmas. It does not matter. Let Obama play his hand with care. And that is as far as the poker analogy goes, because this is not about “winning,” it’s not about a war of religions, it’s not about establishing American Empire whatever the provincials or imperialists may think. This is about finding two paths, one that Americans can travel and one that Afghans can travel.
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