Op-Ed: Talking To The Taliban Will Yield Little

Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, there are conflicting reports of talks between President Hamid Karzai and Taliban leaders. But can the West trust the Karzai government — or the Taliban? The Council On Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb says either way, talking to the Taliban is all for show.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the Opinion Page, and the tangled motives of the various parties, following news last week of peace talks between the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and elements of the Taliban. Some reports say Karzai is talking with Mullah Omar, the former leader of Afghanistan. Others suggest at least three different insurgent groups could be at the table. And, of course, both the United States and Pakistan have hands to play, as well.

In a piece for The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb concludes that the cynics may be right to conclude that little will come from these talks - at least this time around. Is it time to talk - as he writes - with the devil? Leslie Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and joins us by phone from New York. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And it's important to remember these groups - you - we describe as the Afghan Taliban, are, as you describe, bad guys with a lot of American blood on their hands.

Mr. GELB: Yes, they are. They really are bad guys. Just look at the way they ran Afghanistan when they were in charge. They could not have been more cruel. And you would think that that's reason enough for the Afghans themselves to fight like hell to defeat them. But, you know, the odd thing about this war is that we've become the main defenders of a free future for Afghans that they really ought to be defending for themselves.

CONAN: And the Obama administration - indeed, General Petraeus, who's now the military commander in Afghanistan - argue this is not the time to talk. We need to be in a stronger position, pummel the Taliban for a year or so, and then it might be time.

Mr. GELB: That's basically the position of the administration, or at least - let me put it this way: Basically, the president - the position of president of the United States for Afghanistan, David Petraeus. The White House, I think, harbors - hopes that something could happen on this front. But basically, the White House goes along with the consensus that you don't start serious negotiations until you're in a stronger position.

CONAN: And so then what is our ally, Hamid Karzai, doing? Doing exactly that.

Mr. GELB: Well, he is playing games that suit his own purposes. His main purpose right now is to try to deflect American pressure on him to reform his government, and every once in a while, we decided to get tough with him. And one way he has of diffusing our pressure is to threaten to talk to the Taliban, because he knows we don't want him to do that now.

CONAN: And he knows we don't want him to do it now? So this is to get leverage with Washington.

Mr. GELB: I think that's the main aim. Because, look, he understands full well that if he were to make any kind of deal with the Taliban on the issue that the Taliban demands most - namely withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO forces right away. If he were to make any kind of deal like that, he would be out of power the next day.

CONAN: Similarly, it seems unlikely the Taliban are likely to agree to the principal U.S. demand, which is that they renounce violence and renounce al-Qaida.

Mr. GELB: You got it. So each side right now is making demands that the other side is entirely likely to reject.

CONAN: So why are the various Taliban elements - if all of them are there at the table - why are they talking? They can just play for time, they think.

Mr. GELB: Yeah. I think they're talking - or at least some elements of the Taliban are talking. There's so many different Taliban groups. They're talking in order to create mischief, to create the notion in the minds of some Afghans that there might some deal reached to try to soften up the opposition. And they may be doing it, as well, to try to entice American opponents of the war.

CONAN: So to engender opposition to the war in the United States.

Mr. GELB: Yeah. Or to make people feel that if we made a - the United States made a more generous offer to the Taliban, that some deal might be workable.

CONAN: Another player in the game, of course, Pakistan, which seems to be on both sides.

Mr. GELB: Well, at least on both sides. The Paks are the most difficult to understand and the easiest to understand in all of this. You would think, given all the public rhetorical explosions they make about the need for the United States to stay in Afghanistan to see that war through, that they would be strong backers of the United States. But, in fact, they tell us to stay in Afghanistan endlessly and they provide a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan. They give them protection. They give them aid. And in these negotiations, on the one hand, they seem to be telling the Taliban go to it, do it, but we've got to be there to check on you.

CONAN: And their interest on that side of the table - well, really, their interest on both sides of the table is the longer term gain.

Mr. GELB: I think so. But their interest is so conflicted because, you know, they do want us to stay there. And they do have their connection, a very deep one, to the Afghan Taliban. So, you know, they're on both sides of that issue.

CONAN: Another player in the game, not a direct one, but the party sponsoring the talks is the gulf state of Abu Dhabi, which you suggested...

Mr. GELB: (unintelligible)

CONAN: ...might be the source of the story in the first place.

Mr. GELB: That's right. They sponsored these talks, and they sponsored similar talks about a year ago. And mind you - and this is the measure of how serious these talks are - the press is allowed to sit in the room while the talks are going on. And some of the participants described the talks more as an academic seminar than as a negotiation. And I think that probably captures the spirit of the thing.

CONAN: So is there a time when it is going to be a - you suggest the cynics are right and given that context, it's likely that not much is going to emerge from these talks. But will there be a time when talks might be productive? And what would be the conditions then?

Mr. GELB: Yeah. There almost always has to be - there's always has to be talks at some point, unless you're dealing with a real devil, somebody like a Hitler, and there's no making a deal with them. There's just looking after your own interests as best you can. But in this case, I think, there eventually will be talks.

And look, every time we've been involved in some kind of clash, we end up talking to the other side. We talked to the North Koreans in order to have a ceasefire in the Korean War. And Vietnam, you know, we fought almost for a decade there. And Bob Gates is in Vietnam right now, and we're talking about joint military maneuvers - joint military maneuvers - with Vietnam against China. If we had understood anything about Vietnam years ago, we would have understood that they considered China their biggest adversary then, not just now.

So, you know, there's a lot about these - in these countries, these cultures we don't begin to understand here. Americans aren't good in understanding what goes on in other countries. But at some point, if we are to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan while protecting our real interests there, it's going to involve talking to the Taliban devil.

CONAN: And you suggest General Petraeus - there's a telling quote about him sitting down to talk with people in Iraq who eventually helped the United States a great deal.

Mr. GELB: Exactly. I mean General Petraeus is one tough-minded guy. And even he said, when it came down to the wire in Iraq, you had to talk to the people who you were fighting if you wanted to get some deal that allowed us to extricate ourselves. And he said, you know, in the end, we're going to - we'll have to do that in Afghanistan as well. But I think it's got to be part of a strategy of protecting our interests there over the long run without fighting a major land war. That is what has to be in our head in order to be able to make a deal with the Taliban.

CONAN: You also point out domestic politics, of course, plays a role on all sides for Afghan President Karzai, for the Pakistanis, for the Taliban, certainly and...

Mr. GELB: That's what foreign policy is mainly about. Foreign policy is the extension of domestic politics by...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're rewriting Clausewitz here.

Mr. GELB: Yes.

CONAN: But there's also an element of American domestic politics as well. You write that the hawks in the United States are very worried by the prospect of these talks and the idea that important American national interests may be sold out.

Mr. GELB: Yeah. I mean, the problem with our debate on Afghanistan policy is that it hasn't been a serious debate at all. You know, in the first place, when we went in there 10 years ago - almost 10 years ago -there was good reason. Afghanistan was the home for the al-Qaida people who attacked us. So, sure, let's go in and get them.

But all of the sudden, revenge, proper revenge turned into a major land war. And here we are, almost 10 years later, and what used to be the center of a threat to the United States, the terrorist threat to the United States in Afghanistan has now morphed so that that threat is even more serious from other parts of the world, from Pakistan, from Sudan, from Yemen, from Jersey City. So we have to really rethink the reasons for fighting in Afghanistan. It was once a very important interest. It's no longer anything resembling a vital interest in a war against terrorism.

But there still will be a residual threat. And I think we have to figure out how to get our troops there down to a small and sustainable level to deal with that residual threat and begin to focus our energies on now the worldwide terrorist threat.

CONAN: Yet, some would argue that, indeed, we don't need necessarily to deal with the threat in Afghanistan so much as the threat that a defeat or a vacuum there would pose to Pakistan, a country which has nuclear weapons.

Mr. GELB: I know. And I get that response every time I say what I just said to you, that, well, the war really isn't in Afghanistan. It's in Pakistan. And my answer to them is, sure, I think Pakistan is probably the country that represents the biggest threat to world peace and the safety of our friends and allies. It's a highly unstable country with a large extremist group and 100 nuclear weapons and building much more. So, you know, what do we do about that? I say to them, what are we going to do? They say, well, we'll work with them to create stability. We'll give them economic aid. It's a country of 180 million people that can't begin to govern itself and we're going to fix it up? That just won't happen.

You know, and I think the best way to deal with the Pakistanis is to try to help the moderate group in that country by asking them what can we do to help strengthen your position. But if it involves any kind of open-ended stay in Afghanistan, I don't see how that begins to help the position of moderates in Pakistan. I don't get the connection.

CONAN: Leslie Gelb, thank you for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. GELB: Sure.

CONAN: Leslie Gelb, president emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote an op-ed last week, "Dealing with the Devil" for The Daily Beast. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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