The Futility of Peace Talks in Afghanistan
James Dobbins of the RAND Corp. has written a piece which basically says the Obama administration’s recent attempts to negotiate with the Taliban is not a sign that the war is coming to an end. He compares it with peace talks between the U.S. and the North Vietnamese, which he was involved in as a diplomat:
Some may see negotiation as an easy or quick way out of Afghanistan, but the Vietnamese analogy suggests otherwise. The Paris talks lasted more than five years, whereas the Afghan process has not yet begun. Throughout those years the U.S. engagement in Vietnam was larger and more costly than the current U.S. engagement in Afghanistan in both blood and treasure. Throughout those years U.S. opposition to the war was much more intense than anything we have seen in the past decade. Yet the existence of negotiations served throughout most of that period as a rationale for continuing the fight, not for ending it. One cannot prove a counterfactual assumption, but I expect most historians would agree that, in the absence of the Paris peace talks, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would have come even earlier.
Peace talks were a “rationale for continuing the fight, not for ending it.” This isn’t so difficult to grasp when you take into consideration all of the non-campaign stump speeches that have been given on Afghanistan, all of which make it clear that the 2014 date Obama has set for “withdrawal” is actually more like a minor drawdown. You can also see the futility of the peace talks by noting the ridiculous proposals we’ve heard from both Washington and Kabul, like that the Taliban lay down their arms while negotiating or that they form a peaceful political party and run for parliament.
Steve Coll recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker on the peace talk efforts. There are rumors that Pakistan’s military and/or ISI has the Taliban leader Mullah Omar on house arrest. The U.S. has expressed a desire to negotiate directly with Mullah Omar because of his sway over the Taliban as a whole. But Pakistan has repeatedly exhibited an unwillingness to let that happen. They, of course, prefer a strong Taliban for the future of Afghanistan so as to act as a buffer preventing Pakistan’s rival India from dipping into Afghanistan diplomatically or economically. But the prospects for substantive peace talks are even more remote than that. The late envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, told Coll before he passed away the following: “I don’t think we can negotiate with Mullah Omar, personally. That’s why I think eliminating Mullah Omar is so critical. Right now, if you could choose between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, I personally would lean toward Mullah Omar.” Well, now bin Laden is dead and Omar and the peace talks seem as futile as ever.
It’s worth pointing out in this context how worthless the entire mission in Afghanistan seems. The war at this point is about trying to either rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, or negotiate them into democrats, neither of which is going to happen (especially so long as we keep brutalizing the civilian population, which serves as a recruiting tool for the Taliban). It’s also about training the Afghan government and security forces in being functional and sustainable, also a complete failure. A cursory look at the situation leads one immediately to the obvious conclusion that we actually have no strategic or national security interests in Afghanistan: we remain there for symbolic, face-saving, political reasons, not for any notion of national interest or protecting Americans. This is a heck of a lot of death, suffering, and waste for mere symbolic victories.