Opinion: A Cheer for Trump’s Outreach to the Taliban

This piece originally appeared on The New York Times on September 7, 2018.

By Douglas Lute and Denis McDonough
Both authors are national security experts who served under President Barack Obama.

In July, The Times reported that the Trump administration directed the State Department to open direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, to see whether formal talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are possible. Taliban officials soon claimed to have met with American diplomats, an assertion that American officials have not publicly commented on. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced while on his way to Pakistan that Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, would become an adviser on achieving reconciliation there.

We welcome those moves.

When we held high-level national security positions in previous administrations, we spent years attempting in vain to open diplomatic talks among the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban; we believed that direct talks that would lead to a political accommodation among Afghans were the only way to end Afghanistan’s 17-year war. Now we think the Trump administration’s apparent choice to seek the same goal could mark an important milestone we could not reach.

The administration’s current policy — keeping American troops in Afghanistan without any time limit — has increased pressure on the Taliban, but military and civilian experts generally agree that there is no military solution to the Afghan war. The administration’s willingness to begin direct talks should underscore to the Taliban that the United States believes talks are the only way to achieve its stated goal — stabilizing Afghanistan to prevent it from reverting to a safe haven from which terrorists could strike America and its allies.

Some critics, including Afghan officials, worry that direct Taliban-American talks would legitimize the insurgents and undercut Afghanistan’s elected government. To the contrary, direct talks with America could test whether the Taliban want a future in Afghanistan’s civil politics, rather than continuing their insurgency with links to Pakistan’s intelligence service. By revealing the Taliban’s real intentions in this way, such two-party talks might open the door to talks among Afghan parties.

The critics also question whether any Taliban partner could deliver an agreement that would bind that large, diverse movement. Does the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, represent the movement’s senior leaders? This should be a priority issue in exploratory talks. Our own experience suggests that the Doha office is the most accessible connection to the Taliban’s leaders — able to deliver decisions from the Taliban’s topmost governing body and to enforce its agreements.

Consider that more than four years have passed since five captured Taliban members were transferred on June 1, 2014, from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier to have been held by the Taliban. Rather than returning to the battlefield, those Taliban members have remained in Qatar in accordance with our agreement. This is not to say that the Taliban are to be trusted, but it is evidence that the political office can deliver.

Other critics worry that the Taliban won’t engage in serious dialogue with the United States until they are defeated militarily.

To be sure, the Taliban are nowhere near defeated, having attacked Kabul and other major Afghan cities in recent months. But the Taliban have internal political challenges that threaten their cohesion. After decades of war, they are hard-pressed to demonstrate that they offer Afghanistan something more than unending conflict. This is especially true since Taliban leaders sit in the relative calm and safety of Pakistan, far from battlefield hardships and beholden more to the demands of Pakistan’s intelligence service than to their Afghan brothers’ desires.