Negotiating with 'terrorists'? How US-Taliban talks expose the mad logic of America's war on terror

Negotiating with 'terrorists'? How US-Taliban talks expose the mad logic of America's war on terror
Comment: After wasting trillions and causing irreparable damage, Washington decided to give negotiations a chance in Afghanistan, exposing the incoherence of its decades-long war on terror, writes Rami G. Khouri
6 min read
14 Aug, 2019
Decades after invading Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, the US now negotiating with them [Getty]
The peace negotiations that concluded its latest round this week in Doha, Qatar between the United States and the Taliban militants of Afghanistan may represent a historic turnaround in how superpowers deal with movements they deem to be terrorist groups - or they may only confirm that, in fact, superpowers have no idea of how to deal with such movements.

There is supreme irony in the timing of these talks, which should cast serious doubt about US policies towards militant groups it calls terrorists. Indeed, the talks come just as the US government and the United Nations recently declared that, accordin to their assessments, the terror threat from movements like the "Islamic State" (IS) and al-Qaeda, the latter being the main reason for the US invasion of Afghanistan, remains strong.

Recall that the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) that the US launched in the wake of the 2001 9/11 attacks had started with assaults on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, when Washington accused the then Taliban-led Afghan government of sheltering Osama Bin Laden's terror movement. Now the US is negotiating with the very same Taliban, hoping to blunt the movement’s continued expansion across the country, while the government in Kabul suffers serious deficiencies in securing the country and defeating the Taliban.

While the US formally stopped using the name GWOT a few years ago, it continues the same failed military policies that lack serious assessments of the underlying political, economic, and social factors that drive local people to take up arms in the first place.

Respected American research estimates suggest that the total cost of the GWOT in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other lands where the US military has led the assault on terror groups is around $5.6 trillion; that's trillion with a T. 

So how should we interpret the fact that the longest and most expensive war in America history has reached a point this month where Washington is negotiating a peace agreement with the same Taliban whom it targeted when it launched the GWOT?

One possibility is that negotiating with militants - even if you consider them terrorists - might lead to a better situation for all concerned, especially if this ends the war and the group in question enjoys significant local support or legitimacy.

To negotiate with 'terrorists'

Other experiences in recent years where such a question reared its head include the US decision to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1980s, after years of rejecting to do so because it saw the PLO as a terror group. Hamas and Hezbollah are two other groups that Washington rejects and sanctions, but they also enjoy immense support among many (but not all) people in Lebanon, Palestine, and other parts of the Middle East.

If Washington happily negotiates with the Taliban, and seems to feel it is making progress on a permanent peace agreement in Afghanistan that will allow it to withdraw all US troops, is it sensible to consider US-Hezbollah or US-Hamas talks as a logical eventuality then?

What seems to be missing is a serious attempt to identify the underlying reasons why militant insurgencies in badly mismanaged countries like Afghanistan happen in the first place.

The Doha negotiations with the Taliban are in their eighth round, suggesting that substantive progress is being made, albeit incrementally. An accord that would allow the US fighters to leave Afghanistan with a bit more dignity than they left Vietnam 45 years ago, some on helicopters from the roof of the US embassy, is one of four core aims of these talks. The other three are a commitment by the militants not to shelter jihadists, an intra-Afghan political dialogue, and a ceasefire. But the Taliban see the government of President Ashraf Ghani as illegitimate, and have so far refused to negotiate with it.  

"Building on excellent progress in Kabul last week, I've spent the last few days in Doha, focused on the remaining issues in completing a potential deal with the Taliban,"  US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted earlier this week, noting that any agreement must  "allow for a conditions-based troop withdrawal".

However, rarely in a single week in the past 17 years have we heard so many credible assessments as we have this week from US and UN officials alike about the inability of local and foreign militaries to end to the threat from jihadist militants and terrorists.

The persistent threat from IS

A UN report to the Security Council by its Counter-Terrorism Committee released last week said that the IS leadership is, "adapting, consolidating and creating conditions for an eventual resurgence there", while also exploring how to regenerate its ability to plan and carry out complex international terror operations. The UN Secretary-General said in another report that IS had about $300 million in revenues that it uses to preserve and expand its operations.

More troubling, he noted that IS also is promoting greater financial self-sufficiency across its network of supporters and affiliates around the region and further afield.

Several United States government agencies have also said that IS is able to continue its activities and protect its core leadership, even after being evicted from its urban bases in Iraq and Syria earlier this year. A US Defence Department report released last week by its Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve - its name for the anti-IS campaign -  noted that IS had strengthened its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was "re-surging" in Syria. 

Other US officials said separately the same day that thousands of IS fighters were scattered around Syria and Iraq, while the group's "brand" continues to spread around the world and attract adherents or supporters, especially in Africa. State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales said, "IS branches and networks now span the African continent from east to west and north to south. They've increased the lethality of their attacks, they've expanded into new areas, and they’ve repeatedly targeted US interests."

These startling simultaneous updates on IS' refusal to die - and the world's inability to kill it - contrast sharply with the news coverage of US officials negotiating with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war. It makes you wonder if the sustained use of military force, sanctions, threats, and other aggressive actions as the main tools against militant groups have mostly been either inappropriate strategically or incompetent politically - or both.

What seems to be missing in this awkward picture for US and other countries' officials who have eagerly joined the GWOT is a serious attempt to identify and address the underlying local reasons why militant insurgencies and all-out indigenous assaults against governments in badly mismanaged countries like Afghanistan happen in the first place.

The outcome of the Afghanistan peace talks might offer compelling insights into this question - if anyone really cares and is listening among those world powers and regional governments that have wasted $5.6 trillion, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (mostly civilians), injured and displaced millions more, and ravaged entire national economies and infrastructures.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.