Talking to the Taliban Has Backfired

by Ahmad Majidyar

Last night, the British embassy in Kabul hosted an Iftar party on the occasion of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The guest list included senior ex-members of the Taliban regime. One photo from the event shows British ambassador William Patey posing cheerfully with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan.  

The Taliban’s response to the embassy’s goodwill gesture is telling. Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the British Council office in Kabul this morning, killing at least eight Afghan policemen and taking over the compound for several hours. The Taliban’s spokesman said the group carried out the attack to mark the anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Great Britain in 1919.

With public support for the war in Afghanistan at an all-time low, U.S. and NATO military and civilian officials are desperately trying to reconcile with the Taliban to end the decade-long war in the country. Pres. Hamid Karzai’s government, too, is increasingly focusing on reconciliation with the Taliban at the expense of alienating ethnic minority leaders, who are rearming in fear of a Taliban comeback. But appeasement and unilateral concessions to the Taliban — such as freeing Taliban prisoners, removing their leaders from an international sanctions list, and offering Taliban leaders senior positions in the government — have not only failed to change the Taliban’s behavior but have also emboldened the terrorist group. Recently, the Taliban has stepped up violence and assassinations of government officials and further deepened ties with international terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

In his June 22 troop-withdrawal speech, President Obama stressed the need for a “political settlement” in Afghanistan and added that “America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” U.S. officials were optimistic that their “confidence-building” talks with Tayeb Agha, a former bodyguard of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, will lead to a diplomatic breakthrough with the Taliban. But the talks have stalled as Tayeb Agha has disappeared. Last year, a senior Taliban leader transported in a NATO helicopter to Kabul for peace talks turned out to be an impostor — a shopkeeper from Quetta, in Pakistan.

Today’s attack indicates that the policy of appeasing the Taliban has failed. Diplomatic engagement with the Taliban will not produce any results until the terrorist group is defeated militarily. One-sided engagement policy is not an exit strategy but a recipe for failure. It bolsters insurgents’ confidence, divides and weakens the Afghan government, and gives incentives to Pakistan to continue backing the Taliban for its “strategic depth” once foreign troops leave the country.

— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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