Commentary Magazine


Tea Leaves and the Taliban

In the New York Times report that NATO has escorted Taliban leaders to talks in Kabul, there is a slight but eye-catching overemphasis on the importance of withholding the names of the Taliban. The Times cites a request from U.S. and Afghan officials that the names be withheld for fear of retaliation against the Taliban delegates by Pakistani intelligence or other Taliban. But a moment’s reflection informs us that the Taliban leaders’ associates know exactly who they are — and there are plenty of cell phones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It cannot be a secret for long who went to Kabul.

Strictly necessary or not, the security warning to the Times appears oddly pointed, fingering the Pakistani intelligence agency with an uncharacteristic lack of dissimulation about Pakistan’s quality as an antiterrorism ally. It is attributed to an Afghan official, but it comes across as representative of general concerns held also by the U.S. There seems to have been no attempt by Obama’s officials to leave a different impression. Intentionally or by default, the security warning serves as the rhetorical cutting of a tether: the end of a politically unifying narrative about the Afghan conflict and the beginning of something else. What that something else will be is not clear, but the central role of the Taliban in this strategic hinge point is informative.

The Times and others have picked up on the fact that the “discussions [in Kabul] appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan’s leaders … The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan.” If the U.S. is backing this play — and our concern about secrecy for the Taliban negotiators suggests we are – that’s a major development in our policy. Revealing such developments obliquely through oracles and signs is becoming a tiresome pattern with the Obama administration. It certainly doesn’t burnish our image of integrity as a global power. And as the Times points out, with masterly understatement, this particular policy shift “could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis.”

I agree with Max Boot that the military situation in Afghanistan is not such as to force the Taliban to negotiate. But the apparent import of the outreach to the Taliban is divorced from that consideration. This looks like evidence of an emerging policy initiative to exclude Pakistani influence from the reconciliation talks, independent of security conditions in Afghanistan.

If that is a misperception, it’s an awfully big and significant one to leave uncorrected. The U.S. headlines have been full of Pakistani perfidy for weeks now; my impression from the Obama administration’s effective silence has been that it has no interest in counteracting the animus that naturally arises in the American public in the face of such themes. In a rare editorial last week, Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, was moved to defend the difficult situation of the Pakistani government, urging the U.S. administration not to turn its back on partnership with the struggling democracy. He appears to be swimming against the tide of headlines and administration policy.

Something that requires no divination to understand is the goal of the Taliban. Long War Journal’s Threat Matrix blog reports that the Taliban website, Voice of Jihad, has posted a demand that the U.S. guarantee in writing to withdraw its troops on a specified timeline (i.e., July 2011), as a good-faith gesture toward reconciliation talks. It’s hard to ignore the uncanny similarity of this demand to Hezbollah’s demand for the same guarantee from a prospective Maliki government in Iraq. Maliki’s Hezbollah-backed coalition with the radical Shia cleric al-Sadr is emerging as a fait accompli in Baghdad, in spite of U.S. opposition; the Taliban cannot be pessimistic about their own chances with reconciliation talks and a withdrawal timeline.