The Taliban Might Negotiate, Even if They Think They're Winning

You can't follow U.S. print media coverage of the war in Afghanistan for any length of time without running into some variation of the following assertion:

"The Taliban Will Never Negotiate, As Long As They Think They're Winning."

No serious effort is usually made to substantiate this claim, which is asserted as if it were a self-evident truth. What you generally don't see, reading the newspapers, is a sentence that looks like this:

"The Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning, and the reason that we know this is...."

Yet, if you look back over the course of the last year, the assertion that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning" is a very important claim. Why did the U.S. send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last year? Because "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning." Why are we killing innocents today in Kandahar? "Because the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning."

A claim that is a key buttress of life and death decisions about people we have never met and know little about and who have no say in our decisions, and yet which has never been substantiated, is a claim that deserves sustained scrutiny.

How could it be a self-evident truth that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning?" Logically, two possibilities present themselves:

1) It is an immutable fact of human nature that no party engaged in a conflict ever negotiates as long as they think they're winning. The US never negotiates as long as it thinks it is winning; Britain never has; France never has; no guerilla army or insurgent movement ever has.

Note that if we believed this assertion about human nature, it would be a grim forecast for the prospect of negotiations to end conflicts, since, assuming that everyone is operating from more or less the same set of information, and therefore that it would be unlikely that two parties to a conflict would simultaneously become convinced that they are losing, the only conflicts that could be ended through negotiation would be ones in which the winning chances of both parties were 50-50 and both sides agreed that this was so.

But this assertion is easily falsified with examples from history. Japan negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese war, even though it thought it was winning; the African National Congress negotiated the end of apartheid, even though it thought it was winning; North Vietnam negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, even though it thought it was winning.

That leaves: 2) Human beings do sometimes negotiate, even when they think they're winning, but there's something specific that we know about the Taliban that allows us to conclude that they will never negotiate, as long as they think they are winning.

What's generally missing from these assertions about the Taliban is any specific information about the Taliban that would allow us to draw this conclusion; or any specific reference to what it is that the U.S. wants to achieve in Afghanistan, that it expects the Taliban to refuse to agree to, so long as the Taliban thinks that they are winning.

Suppose the US now sends a message to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, saying: We propose negotiations with you along the following lines; the US will withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan according to an agreed timeline. In exchange, the Taliban will agree that any area of Afghanistan that comes under their control or remains under their control will be free of bases of Al Qaeda or any other organization which organizes or promotes violence against civilians outside of Afghanistan.

Are we certain that that Afghan Taliban would not be willing to negotiate on the basis of this proposal, because the Taliban think that they are winning? If we are not certain, then the standard assertion is false.

Some may object that such a proposal is presently not feasible, because the Pentagon won't support it. But now we are not talking about the unwillingness of the Taliban to negotiate, but the unwillingness of the United States to negotiate. And presumably, those of us who are citizens of the United States ought to have this problem as the focus of our attention.

So, at best, we can see the standard assertion as a misleading shorthand for a more accurate assertion:

"The Taliban, as long as they think that they are winning, will never negotiate on terms presently acceptable to the United States Government."

Or, putting the United States in the front of the sentence where it belongs:

"The United States won't negotiate with the Taliban as long as the Taliban think that they are winning, because the United States believes that the Taliban will not accept a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which remains a core U.S. goal in Afghanistan, as long as the Taliban think that they are winning."

I agree with this modified assertion. In fact, I doubt that the Taliban would accept a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, even if they were losing. So, whether the Taliban think they are "winning" or "losing" isn't really that important to the question of meaningful negotiations. The main obstacle to the commencement of meaningful negotiations is that Washington is not yet prepared to agree to a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. And the cause of that is that there just hasn't been enough political pressure on Washington yet, domestic and external, to agree to a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal.

Of course, putting the United States at the center of the question draws attention to, rather than obscures, the central fact that "terms presently acceptable to the United States government" is not something given by God to Moses, but something about which there is considerable disagreement in the U.S. Most Americans are ready for a unilateral U.S. timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The standard assertion has the virtue, from the point of view of maintaining the status quo, of relegating the opinions of the majority of Americans to irrelevancy, by hiding the fact that the majority of Americans don't agree with the bottom line for negotiations of official Washington, and that if the majority of Americans were allowed to determine U.S. foreign policy, serious negotiations could begin today.

According to poll data, "timetable for withdrawal" is the position of the majority of Americans and a supermajority of Democrats. It is also the position of 60% of House Democrats, a handful of House Republicans, and 18 Democrats in the Senate, according to votes earlier this year. The main change we need to get to negotiations has nothing to do with the Taliban: we need more Members of Congress to join with the 60% of House Democrats and 18 Senate Democrats who support a timetable for withdrawal. What happens in the U.S. elections on November 2, in which a number of Democrats -- like Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson -- who support the supermajority Democratic position of "timetable for withdrawal" are in danger of defeat, is likely to have a far greater impact on the prospect of negotiations to end the war than how many more murderous night raids the Pentagon carries out in Kandahar.