Dealing with the Devil

In Afghanistan, will secret talks with the Taliban lead to danger or a deal? Leslie H. Gelb examines the question.

There are at least three insurgent groups, and all agree on one overriding short-term goal: the full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. (Allauddin Khan / AP Photo)

It is the most deliciously Machiavellian undertaking in years. It’s also inscrutable and scary. I refer, of course, to this week’s spate of revelations that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is conducting a variety of secret talks with the Taliban, or parts thereof. Now, obviously, whatever these noble explorers are doing, it is no longer secret and it is almost certainly more a game than a serious negotiation. It takes a divining rod to decipher exactly what all the various parties, including not only the Afghans but also the Pakistanis and our very own American leaders, are scheming to do. It is very hard to believe that any of them is now seeking a negotiated settlement. It is very easy to believe that they are all up to something tricky. Among those most alarmed by these secret talks are the American hawks, who suspect and fear that an unconscionable sellout of U.S. interests is afoot. And yet, if there is a way out of this war—short of expending another decade of blood and treasure—it has to include trying to talk to the devil.

Follow the bouncing ball of secret contacts all mysteriously made public this week: The Washington Post outed meetings between Karzai’s representatives and the Quetta Shura, the main Taliban group headed by Mullah Omar, who ran Afghanistan in the good old days before the 9/11 attacks and who is presumably still the top dog. The Post identified its squealers as “anonymous Afghan and Arab sources.” Then today, The Guardian exclaimed that Karzai’s people met with the even more loathsome Haqqani Network, nominally headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, and that even Washington held “indirect talks with the Haqqani clan through a Western intermediary.” Their squealers were “well-placed Pakistani and Arab sources.” Not to be outdone, The Wall Street Journal reported that “retired Pakistani security chiefs and former Taliban leaders are meeting in Kabul, trying to find ways to open peace talks with the insurgents—possibly by dropping key Western-backed conditions to such a reconciliation.” The talks are being sponsored by the United Arab Emirates, presumably the leakers of their virtuous efforts.

Ah, one needs a program to track all the players. There are at least three insurgent groups—the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network, and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. They coordinate even less than the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon. Americans, of course, just like to call them all the Afghan Taliban, ignoring the difference between the Afghan Taliban that wants to take over Kabul and the Pakistani Taliban that wants to rule in Islamabad. All these groups do agree on one overriding short-term goal: the full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. To that proposition, Team Obama will respond with a resounding "No."

And certainly don’t forget that our best friends, the Pakistanis, have their hands in all these Taliban pots.

There are at least three insurgent groups—the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network, and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. They coordinate even less than the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon.

So, what’s going on? Start with Karzai. He certainly has his feelers out to the Taliban groups. His aim could be to see if a power-sharing deal can be hatched to relieve a bit of pressure from his backers who want to reach out to the Taliban. Or he could be trying to gain some leverage over Washington. I’m betting it’s mostly the latter. He knows that the Obama team, for the most part, feels that the U.S. side is too weak at present to negotiate and is trying to squeeze reforms out of the Afghan government. Thus, he sees talks with the Taliban, which Washington doesn’t like, as a way to keep the U.S. off his back about reforms in Kabul.

What are the various Taliban groups up to? They don’t think for a minute that the Karzai clan would dare to make a deal with them and kick out the Americans. They know Karzai is too weak to take that chance. Most likely, they feel that time is on their side, and that the U.S. will have to pick itself up at some point and abandon Afghanistan once again. So, their goal here is to cause anxiety between the Americans and Afghans, you know, the old "divide and conquer" strategy.

The Pakistani motives are the most difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, they want the Americans to stay there and fight instead of having the Indians come in and play a major role in Afghanistan. On the other hand, they help the Afghan Taliban to kill Americans in Afghanistan and provide them with safe haven in Pakistan. They warn of Americans cutting and running from Afghanistan at the same time as they make it almost impossible for the Americans to stay there. Their purpose in keeping their hands in every negotiating pot is primarily to make sure they know what’s going on and can kill any prospect of mutual Afghan accommodation.

As for the Obama administration, the center of gravity is clearly against serious negotiations with the Taliban or any part thereof at the present time. The key power axis in the administration—Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, and NATO Commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus—argue that the U.S. and Afghan position has to be strengthened considerably before serious talks are undertaken. They further believe that it will take time to achieve this blessed condition, somewhere between 18-24 months. They believe that with maximum U.S. forces in place throughout that period, they can batter the Taliban sufficiently to make a good bargain. Deep down, they’re properly skeptical and cynical about the Taliban keeping to the terms of any settlement. Thus, their terms for negotiations are very demanding and well beyond what they expect the Taliban could possibly accept: abandoning their relationship with al Qaeda, accepting the Afghan constitution, and renouncing armed conflict.

The skeptics and cynics about Karzai or the Obama administration negotiating with the Taliban are probably right. The Taliban are very bad guys, the devils. Sometimes, it is necessary to fight the devils to the death. A nation does that when its vital interests are clearly at stake. They are not clearly at stake in Afghanistan. And so it will make sense, at some moment in the future, to test the bargaining waters with the Taliban devils. At that point, American and Afghan leaders should throw bargaining temptations upon the waters and see if some or most of the Taliban might grab them. If grab them they will, then a drawing down of the American presence will be made far easier. If the Taliban injects serious offers, then Washington and its Afghan allies will have to tend to the future in other ways. At that point, Washington will have to try dealing with the devils, as even the tough-minded General Petraeus has said of the Iraqi devils.

“Ultimately we had to face the question in Iraq of will we sit down across the table from people who have our blood on their hands?” he said. “And the answer was yes.”

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.