'New Yorker': U.S. In Talks With Afghan Taliban

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The New Yorker magazine reports that the Obama administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders. Host Scott Simon talks to Steve Coll, who reported the story.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The New Yorker magazine reports this morning that the Obama administration has entered into direct secret talks with senior Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. An article on the magazine's website says that the talks mark a new and potentially risky phase in U.S.-Afghanistan relations.

Steve Coll reported and wrote the article. He joins us in our studios. Mr. Coll, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEVE COLL (Contributor, New Yorker Magazine; President, The New America Foundation): My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What are the talks like? What's the level of engagement on both sides?

Mr. COLL: They're exploratory, at least as I understand them. They've been going on since last year. Their principle purpose is to try to determine on the U.S. side whether there are significant Taliban leaders who would be willing to enter into more formal negotiations aimed at crafting a political settlement in the war.

SIMON: Now, a report that the United States has been engaging in indirect talks with some members of the Taliban leadership for several months. What's different now? What do they perceive as advantages?

Mr. COLL: Well, I think for the United States, part of the problem over the last year is this subject of talking to the Taliban has floated around. And as the Afghan government - led by President Hamid Karzai, has engaged in its own talks - is that the U.S. had to evaluate the subject through intermediaries. And one thing that the United States and the Taliban, for example, have in common is a desire not to allow the Pakistani government and its intelligence service, for example, to act as a controlling mediator in any political engagement between the U.S. and the Taliban.

So, one of the advantages is for the U.S. to assess for itself what the potential of such negotiations might be and not have to work through intermediaries with their own agenda in the war.

SIMON: And who's representing the Taliban? Can you tell?

Mr. COLL: I don't have a lot of detail about personalities. The history of President Karzai's negotiations is that it's been mainly located in a group of older leaders known as the Quetta Shura, many of whom were in government during the 1990s when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

SIMON: And how can U.S. and Afghan governments be certain that they're dealing with the real McCoy of Taliban leaders?

Mr. COLL: Well, you remember last summer there was this kind of strange con job in which the Afghan government, with Western governments participating in facilitating the talks, ended up talking to a man who appeared to be an imposter, or else he was a plant by one party to the war to test the talks.

One of the problems that that episode highlighted is that the United States does not have a lot of granular, reliable information about Taliban leaders. They've been living in hiding, in exile. We sort of know who they were. Who's doing what now and what they look like was a problem in the summer. I presume that the United States and everybody else has learned their lessons from that farce and has now figured out how to assure themselves that who they're talking to is credible.

SIMON: Uh-huh. You say in your article, Mr. Coll, that there's some debate about the morality of talking to the Taliban going on in the administration.

Mr. COLL: Well, you know, the United States hasn't talked to the Taliban since September 11th because they've been treated - legally and otherwise - as international terrorists. The Taliban say that while they have issues with the United States, they are not at war with the United States and want to be taken as a regional movement.

Given their record of brutality and violence and some of their participation in international terrorism, there are debates still going on inside the Obama administration and among Afghans about whether or not it makes sense to negotiate with a group of this kind. The American conditions are clear: If the Taliban are to participate in Afghan politics, they have to renounce al-Qaida, come off the battlefield and participate in a constitutional system that is plural and political.

SIMON: What are the potential benefits and what are some of the risks?

Mr. COLL: Well, the main benefit would be to reduce violence in the war and to create a more sustainable footing for the Afghan people to sort out their own political balance. All counterinsurgency wars end in political negotiations. When guerillas, previously devoted to armed revolution, are persuaded to pursue their goals through political means, that's the purpose of the negotiations. To try to identify as many Taliban leaders and factions as possible who might be willing to convert their cause to peaceful politics.

In fact, already significant Taliban leaders have come into the government. They're sitting in Kabul, living in houses; some of them are ministers in the government; some of them are members of the parliament. And so there is already a model in Afghanistan for this kind of classical way to end the counterinsurgency war.

SIMON: And what are some of the risks?

Mr. COLL: That by inviting the Taliban in precipitously, the balance of other Afghan politics could unravel and even descend into civil violence. There are many groups in Afghanistan that have a very dim memory of waging war against the Taliban and who are adamantly opposed to their return to politics in any form. If they felt that some deal was being cut behind their backs or that their deal was unbalanced, they might resort to violent resistance themselves.

SIMON: Does the White House acknowledge these talks are going on?

Mr. COLL: I asked them for a comment this week. They referred me to a speech that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave as their official response. The text of that speech essentially analyzes the costs and benefits of negotiations with the Taliban and lays out U.S. policy for conducting them. And that was the nature of their response.

SIMON: Steve Coll, President of The New America Foundation and frequent contributor to the New Yorker. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. COLL: Thank you, Scott.

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