The online headline on the New York Times’s interview with President Obama is: “Obama Ponders Outreach to Elements of the Taliban.” Reading that, I thought, “Uh-oh. He’s looking for a short-cut where none exists. Doesn’t he realize that before you can have successful negotiations you have to make more military progress so that the insurgents realize they can’t achieve their objectives at gunpoint?”
But looking at the actual transcript, I became less concerned. In the first place, the subject of negotiating with the Taliban wasn’t introduced by the president but by the Times reporters. Here is how Obama responded:
I don’t want to pre-judge the review that’s currently taking place. If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region. But the situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, so figuring all that out is going to be a much more of a challenge.
That hardly sounds like a president hell-bent on negotiating with our enemies in Afghanistan. Rather it sounds as if he is acceding to General Petraeus’s nuanced understanding that there are some “reconcilable” insurgents who can be won over while others, the “irreconcilables,” have to be caught or killed. Both elements of our strategy will be much easier to execute with more forces on the ground, starting with the 17,000 reinforcements the president has already approved.