Should The U.S. Try To Negotiate With The Taliban?

As the U.S. tries to find a way to end the war in Afghanistan, should it attempt to negotiate with the Taliban? And if so, how should they go about it? Melissa Block talks to Steve Coll, a former journalist and now president and CEO of the New America Foundation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

General Petraeus also talked today about the importance of reconciling with some members of the Taliban. As he put it, to convince the insurgents to become part of the solution.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Central Command): We've already seen cases where lower and midlevel Taliban leaders have indeed sought to reintegrate. And there have been more in recent days, small numbers here and there.

BLOCK: So, what exactly does reintegrate mean? For an answer we're joined by Steve Coll. He's president of the New America Foundation here in Washington, and a journalist who has written extensively about Afghanistan. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. STEVE COLL (President, New America Foundation): Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: How do you understand this word: reintegration?

Mr. COLL: Well, the military uses it to refer to low and midlevel Taliban commanders as distinct from senior leaders who are thought to be in exile in Pakistan. About the senior leaders they refer to the process of reconciliation, meaning a more strategic negotiation.

In the case of reintegration, the idea is to set up an address at the local level in Afghanistan where a defector can safely join the other side and on the other side enjoy security, maybe some cash and a job and become part not so much of the political process as of the social fabric of government-controlled Afghanistan.

BLOCK: We're talking about reintegration of basically foot soldiers, it sounds like you're talking about, and low-level commanders. You also mentioned reconciliation with higher level Taliban leaders. How far along are Western allies on that path?

Mr. COLL: I think the United States is still ambivalent about the idea of high-level negotiations. For now, policy is united in the view that any such talks are not to be undertaken this year, but could only be pursued next year, perhaps if military momentum were to change.

Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, has a different view, though. He has already been in touch with elements of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, trying to tease out what such talks might entail. So, things are in motion. And I'm not sure that the United States is going to be able to control all the aspects of this part of the negotiation.

BLOCK: It's interesting because we did hear from CIA Director Leon Panetta this weekend. He says they've seen no evidence that the Taliban are truly interested in reconciliation, that they would surrender their arms, denounce al-Qaeda, truly try to become a part of society. Says no evidence of that.

Mr. COLL: Well, there are a lot of hard lines being publicly declared by both sides. The United States says we're not going to think about talking to you until you renounce al-Qaeda. And Director Panetta's right. No significant Taliban leader has come out in public to renounce al-Qaeda. For their part, the Taliban say, we're not talking to you until you get out of Afghanistan. Well, that's not happening anytime soon.

And so, there has been this sort of call and response stalemate at the level of publicly declared intentions. Behind the scenes things are a little more supple. And yet, the question is, are there militarily significant Taliban leaders who really would lay down their arms, accept the Karzai government as legitimate and join a peaceful political process?

There have been some Taliban leaders over the last four or five years who have done that. Not insignificant - former Taliban ministers and core commanders, but there are not many, and their defections have not changed the balance of the war.

BLOCK: And what would their demands be? What would make it worth their while?

Mr. COLL: I think what the Taliban have emphasized is their idea of Islamic justice. And it's clear that if any serious negotiations were to evolve at a high level, one of the Taliban's demands would be for influence over how Sharia law, Islamic law is administered in Afghanistan.

That might be a difficult issue for a government that is bearing in mind the rights of millions of young women and girls who have returned to school, bearing in mind the rights of ethnic and religious minorities that suffered under a previous generation of Taliban rule. So, the devil will be in the details if the negotiations ever get that far.

BLOCK: And that poses a real dilemma, doesn't it, for U.S. policy?

Mr. COLL: It is possible to imagine an exhausted West accepting a settlement in which Islamic law and cultural practices vary from one part of Afghanistan to another. The fear of the groups around President Karzai is that he'll give away too much and that the Taliban will take a foothold and they'll use that foothold to eventually impose their vision of Afghanistan on all of the rest of the country once the United States and its allies have gone.

BLOCK: Okay, Steve Coll, thank you very much.

Mr. COLL: My pleasure. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Steve Coll is the author of the book "Ghost Wars." He's also president of the New America Foundation.

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