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Talking with the Taliban

Today, after face-to-face negotiations in Afghanistan with the Taliban, South Korean officials announced a tentative arrangement to free nineteen South Koreans, who were seized on July 19. Seoul said that more discussion would be needed before the hostages, Christian aid workers, actually would be released. The Taliban has already killed two of the hostages and freed two others. The State Department’s Christopher Hill, acting on behalf of President Bush, had recently pledged support for South Korea’s efforts to negotiate with the kidnappers.

As a condition of the release of the remaining nineteen, South Korea confirmed (as it had previously announced) that it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan. Seoul also said it would stop all missionary activity in the country. The Taliban said that South Korea would withdraw all South Koreans from Afghanistan. The South Koreans did not meet the two most important Taliban demands: the payment of a ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners held by Kabul.

The South Korean government has, in reality, not given up anything. It had already banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan. The Taliban also conceded little. It would have risked even more international condemnation if it had executed the remaining nineteen hostages, who over time would have become a liability in the hands of their captors. Their release, therefore, avoided a dilemma for the Taliban.

The whole incident, of course, further weakened the Karzai government. Yet it also demonstrated once again the inability of today’s democracies to defeat Islamic militants. Despite what they say, elected leaders these days will negotiate with thugs, fanatics, and terrorists.

In a peaceful world, presidents’ making deals with criminals, although deplorable, may not result in lasting injury to the international system. Yet President Bush tells us we are involved in a global death match with terrorists. If we are, in fact, fighting for civilization—which I believe we are—then Bush’s facilitation of the negotiations with the Taliban makes all of us appear feckless.

Either we are involved in an existential struggle or we are not. President Bush should let us know, and act accordingly.



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