President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made diplomacy with the Taliban the cornerstone of their diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan. Never mind that neither the late Richard Holbrooke nor his successor Marc Grossman have ever bothered to conduct lessons learned from the Clinton administration’s disastrous experience talking to the Taliban.
The Taliban launched another attack on the Western presence in Afghanistan overnight as they attacked the Green Village, a major compound housing thousands of Western contractors and NGOs. Rather than being weak, the Taliban are demonstrating renewed vigor and operational capacity in the heart of ISAF territory. The same Taliban groups with whom the Americans and British now negotiate have, since the beginning of dialogue, attacked hotels in Kabul, the British and American embassies, and Afghan government buildings. There appears to be a direct correlation between the urgency of State Department outreach and the boldness of Taliban attacks.
Dialogue is an important tool in the U.S. strategic arsenal, but if misapplied, it can extract a high cost. Before engaging in dialogue with enemies, it is important to set the right circumstances. When President Ronald Reagan engaged Mikhail Gorbachev, he did so only after ensuring he could do so from a position of strength.
Alas, the Foreign Service Institute may preach peace and dialogue, but it fails at its job to inculcate strategy. At present, the Taliban see America as desperate, hoping to strike a deal before fleeing, Obama’s speech notwithstanding. The United States has allowed the Taliban to open an office in Qatar—not only giving the group diplomatic legitimacy but also opening new fundraising opportunities—and has offered a series of unilateral concessions to the group, including releasing terrorists and human rights abusers from Guantanamo Bay. In exchange, the United States has gotten absolutely nothing. It should not surprise that the Taliban do not see the Americans as strong.
If the Obama administration wants the Taliban to take diplomacy seriously, it must convince Mullah Omar that the alternative is far worse. If the Taliban seeks to bolster its negotiating position by launching attacks, it is time for American forces to do likewise—not precise attacks to take out a single high value target, but missions to slaughter hundreds of Taliban fighters regardless of their rank and wherever they seek to hide. If diplomacy is to work—and, with an ideological adversary like the Taliban I strongly doubt it will—it is time to presage it with a slaughter, the likes of which the Taliban has never experienced.