America and the Taliban: a dialogue of the credulous and the cunning 1

There’s an old quip about the British Foreign Office, that just as the Ministry of Defence is for defence [British spelling], the Foreign Office is for foreigners. Another in similar vein: They found a mole in the Foreign Office – he was working for Britain. And who can forget if he’s once seen it the episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ in which an especially slithery FO official, informed by the PM that he’s being posted to Israel, protests, ‘But you know I’m on the Arab side!’ and the PM retorts, ‘I thought you were on our side.’

Career diplomats, at least in the First World, tend to lose sight of what their job is really all about – to look after the interests of their country in dealings with other countries – and instead come to believe that their high, almost priestly, calling is to maintain amicable relations with their foreign counterparts; so as soon as a conflict of interest arises, they are ready to negotiate the terms of their surrender. In Britain this standard maneuver is called the pre-emptive cringe.

A perfect illustration is the US State Department’s transactions with the Taliban. The history is related in some detail by Michael Rubin in Commentary (Taking Tea with the Taliban, February 2010). ‘The story the documents tell,’ he writes, ‘is one of engagement for its own sake – without any consideration given to the behavior or sincerity of an unambiguously hostile interlocutor.’

The exercise in futility, a dialogue of the credulous and the cunning, began in February 1995 when US diplomats met seven Taliban spokesmen in Kandahar. The diplomats wanted information. They got none. Therefore they reported that ‘the Taliban appeared well-disposed toward the United States’.

‘Later the same week, another US diplomat met a Taliban “insider” who told the official what he wanted to hear: the Taliban liked the United States, had no objection to elections in Afghanistan, and were suspicious of both Saudi and Pakistani intentions. This was nonsense, but it was manna for American diplomats who wanted to believe that engagement was possible.’

America wanted the Taliban to stop sheltering Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban took Kabul and became the de facto government of Afghanistan, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Thomas W. Simons, met with Mullah Ghaus, who bore the title of Foreign Minister, to ‘discuss the fact’ that they were giving safe haven to terrorists. Ghaus said there weren’t any terrorists, but if the US would give the Taliban money, they might possibly be ‘more helpful’ to the US. What could he have meant – that they’d find some terrorists lurking about after all? Clarification was not requested, however, and by this hopeful suggestion Simons apparently felt much encouraged.

Even without getting American aid, the Taliban had scored a success. They had violently seized power, but were being negotiated with by the US State Department as a legitimate government. It was enough and more than enough to gratify them, and they had achieved it without making a single concession: they still sheltered bin Laden, and could carry on savagely torturing prisoners and making the lives of Afghan women unrelenting hell without it costing them anything at all.

The US was grateful to the Taliban just for being willing to talk, and the Taliban were grateful to the US for being willing just to talk – because they knew that as long as the talk went on, the Americans would do nothing else. It was a match made in diplomat’s heaven. But what the State Department or President Clinton thought they now had to bargain with, only heaven could tell.

In 1997 Madeleine Albright became Secretary of State and was eager to continue the engagement. ‘Diplomats met Taliban representatives every few weeks … What resulted was theater: the Taliban would stonewall on terrorism but would also dangle just enough hope to keep diplomats calling.’

The very refusal on the part of the Taliban to expel bin Laden seemed to the Clinton administration a compelling reason to go on talking. Not to talk to them would ‘isolate’ them, and that, the National Security Council reckoned, would be a dangerous consequence. Instead they were to be shown yet more goodwill by the US: they were given the money they’d asked for. Of course the funds were carefully labeled: this for providing schools for girls; this for sowing new crops in the fields that had hitherto grown only poppies for the heroin trade. The Taliban took the money, spent it on arms or whatever they liked, continued to deny education to girls, left the poppies in the fields, and pocketed the lesson that the more obstinate they were the more they’d get from the United States.

The US had no compunction about leaving the Northern Alliance isolated, ‘the group of one-time rebels and chieftains that constituted the only serious resistance to the Taliban’. In April 1998 the American ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, went to Afghanistan and deceived himself into believing that he brokered a cease-fire between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, while in fact the fighting between them intensified and continued until the US invasion three years later.

For yet more talks, the Clinton administration then welcomed Taliban delegates into America. The issues were again the treatment of women and terrorists using Afghanistan as a base. An ‘acting minister of Islam and culture’ explained that it was Islamic custom to treat women the way the Taliban did, implying that in the name of the American idea of multicultural tolerance Americans could raise no objection to it. As for bin Laden, they promised to keep him isolated and subdued.

So subdued was he kept that shortly afterwards, in August 1998, his al-Qaeda terrorists carried out their plots to attack the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Clinton retaliated by having a factory flattened in the Sudan, destroying a terrorist training camp with a cruise missile in Afghanistan – and continuing diplomatic engagement with the Taliban.

The Taliban were furious about the training-camp. Mullah Omar, ‘spiritual head’ of the Taliban, phoned the State Department and complained angrily about it. The plots had not been hatched in Afghanistan he insisted, and it was grossly unfair of the US to avenge itself on his country. But he was open to dialogue, he conceded – to the relief of Madeleine Albright. The Taliban’s ‘foreign minister’ Maulawi Wakil Ahmed, met the US ambassador to Pakistan, William B. Milam, and reiterated that they would not expel bin Laden, whose presence in Afghanistan he referred to as a ‘problem’, by which he might have meant for the Americans than rather than the Taliban, but the word made Milam feel hopeful. The ‘diplomatic pressure’, he concluded, was working, and must be kept up. So the talks continued.

When a court in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan found bin Laden not guilty of being involved in the East African attacks, a suspicion rose in the mind of Alan Eastham, a diplomat in the Islamabad legation. “It is possible that the Taliban are simply playing for time,” he wrote; but nevertheless he thought “it is at least [also] possible that they – some of them – are serious about finding a peaceful way out.” [My italics]

Unable or unwilling to see that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were two claws of the same beast, and disregarding all proofs that the Taliban were acting in bad faith, the Clinton State Department insistently proceeded with its pointless, fruitless, self-defeating dialogue. The Taliban and al-Qaeda ‘exploited American naiveté and sincerity at the ultimate cost of several thousand [American] lives.’ For while the talks were proceeding, bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were putting their heads together in Tora Bora to plot 9/11.

When George W. Bush became president, the talks were broken off. And when, after 9/11, America struck at Taliban-ruled, al-Qaeda-harboring Afghanistan, it won a swift military victory – but then lingered on to try and transform the primitive tribal nation with a long history of unremitting internecine strife into a peaceful democracy.

The Taliban fought back, and are winning. And President Obama is returning to the policy of engagement. His administration has revived the fiction that there is a good Taliban and a bad Taliban, and in their desperation to end the war without seeming to be beaten, they are trying to include the Taliban in the farcical ‘democratic’ government that has been established under American auspices. It’s a weird concept: you win a war if you empower your enemy, pretending that he has been born again as your friend.

Now General McChrystal will try to persuade America’s allies at a London conference that the surge he is planning with 30,000 extra troops will lead to a negotiated settlement. But the Financial Times of January 25, 2010, reports that the general acknowledges his ‘growing skepticism about [winning?] the war’.

This seems to be the best he is hoping for: ‘By using the reinforcements to create an arc of secure territory stretching from the Taliban’s southern heartlands to Kabul, Gen McChrystal aims to weaken the insurgency to the point where its leaders would accept some form of settlement with Afghanistan’s government. … But the general warned that violence would rise as insurgents stepped up bombings to try to undermine his strategy.’

The allies he needs to persuade at the conference ‘suffered a 70% rise in casualties last year ‘ and they doubt the credibility of the Afghan government. No wonder there is not much vigorous, confident hope to be detected in the general’s expectations of his allies’ response or in his own strategy if the FT report is to be trusted. It conveys deeply dispiriting indications of McChrystal’s state of mind. The one thing it claims that he and the Taliban agree on is that ‘110,000 foreign troops should go home’. The Afghan government, it says, has ‘little incentive to alter the status quo while atop a lucrative war economy’. And ‘with Barack Obama planning to start withdrawing US troops in mid-2011, the Taliban may believe it has far more resolve than the west’ – meaning, presumably, that it has only to wait and the whole country will be back in its bloodstained hands again.

McChrystal bears the responsibility of saving Obama’s face, which unfortunately is also America’s face. For this desperate if not entirely ignoble purpose the lives of brave soldiers in the magnificent fighting forces of the United States are now being hazarded.

Meanwhile bin Laden apparently lives and al-Qaeda grows, and they continue to plot death and destruction. It seems that diplomacy is not after all the most effective means of stopping them.

Jillian Becker January 26, 2010

  • C. Gee

    It is when the history of “engagement” is set forth, step by futile step, ego by ego, that the dangerous idiocy of this policy is revealed. Yet it is exactly the same pattern followed with North Korea, and Iran.

    The idea that it is bad to “isolate” these rogues, as it makes them more dangerous, is manifestly wrong. Engagement provides cover for the rogues to continue their chosen path safe in the knowledge that they will not be forced into changing for as long as the talking can be kept up. Not only does engagement make rogues more dangerous because they can develop their arsenals – nuclear or conventional or ideological – while the talking continues, but it makes the US less dangerous. It is more difficult to turn on someone one talks to either with a threat of harm or actual harm. The rogues know this. Why not the sophisticated US ?

    Clinton's engagement of the Taliban forced Bush to rout them. And now we have some terrible hybrid of engagement plus routing under Obama (always one to eschew false choices). What are we doing?

    Engagement ? Send in the clowns.