Talking to the Taliban: The Fog of Peace

06/01/2010 10:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Taliban Tango has begun. Everybody is talking about talks with the Taliban. Some Kabul government officials apparently actually had a conversation with a group of unidentified Taliban in the Maldive Islands last week. Most of the world thinks that talking is a good idea. Washington, though, says that talks are premature although it doesn't preclude talks under certain conditions -- going forward. How mature an attitude is that?

Logically, it is impossible to discuss seriously whether talks with the Taliban are desirable/feasible until we clarify some basic terms. One, who are 'we?' Washington and Karzai, supposedly fated partners, have very different ideas as to what constitutes conditions for productive talks. Then there is Pakistan -- at once 'we' and 'they.' Equally, they all three hold divergent notions of what an acceptable outcome is.

Two, who are the 'Taliban?' This proper noun has multiple antecedents. Are 'we' differentiating among 'hard core' Taliban, 'soft core' Taliban and 'convenience' Taliban? Are 'we' certain where the political demarcation lines run between the Afghan 'Taliban" and the Pakistani 'Taliban?' How do any or all of them relate to al-Qaidi?

Three, what is Washington or Karzai aiming to achieve? To put it another way, what is 'success' and what is 'failure?' What is a reasonable objective and what isn't? Over what time frame? President Obama never has defined success -- except that he'll recognize it when he sees it. Will he also recognize failure when he sees it? Is the former simply a spinnable result and the latter an unspinnable result? Frankly, there is good reason to think that these definitions will depend on the results of the off-year elections, his re-election strategy, and what happens on other fronts: Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine (abroad) and a host of things at home. As for the president's senior officials, they look to be as befuddled as he is. Richard Holbrooke holds the copyright on the "we'll know it when we see it" line

Four, the fundamental intellectual sin of our leaders has been their intention to leave cloudy how much of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan -- or elsewhere -- we can tolerate. On the surface, it appears to be zero threat. But that means eradicating not just al-Qaidi but also eradicating any political grouping that may succor them -- now, in the near future, whenever any such group may change their minds down the road, for a dozen possible reasons. If that is our true objective, stemming from zero tolerance, then talks with any of the 'Taliban' are out of the question. The implication is that we should take direct custody of Afghanistan, northwest Pakistan -- and, perhaps, Baluchistan and certain neighborhoods of Karachi as well. Empire, anyone?

If the tolerance threshold for terrorism is located anywhere above zero, a wide range of possibilities open themselves -- theoretically. In that case, we still have to come up with a few definitions more subtle and differentiated than those implicit in Washington's discourse to date. That is the sine qua non for serious diplomacy. Of course, Obama also will have to come up with an explanation of why and how Americans must accept a measure of vulnerability. That is no easy task in light of the administration's hyping of the threat posed by the Times Square dunderhead. For who knows when the next ace bomber may show up -- with or without having mastered the 'some assembly required' instructions.

If Obama's luck turns bad, the guy will make an appearance in October 2012. If his streak of good luck holds, bin Laden's corpse will show up either the week before or the week after. For want of a genuine strategy, there is always fortune to fall back on.

The President made diplomacy the theme of the national security strategy he laid out at West Point last month. Obama proclaimed that "the US must shape a world order as reliant on the force of diplomacy as on the might of its military to lead," That will be quite a feat given his aversion to talking with people. Opponents are shunned -- whether Iran, Hamas (the elected government of Palestine), the Sadrists in Iraq, Syria, almost everyone in Somalia and, of course, the Taliban. Friends who take the diplomatic initiative to advance what was Washington's own stated foreign policy objective, e.g. Turkey and Brazil, are scorned as meddlers. Other supposed allies, such as Karzai and Pakistan, are scolded because they don't follow Washington's instruction. A brave new world of diplomacy grounded in multilateralism is still on the far horizon.