10/03/2006 10:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Frist Offers Olive Branch to the Taliban?


Some are critiquing Senator Bill Frist's comments that "people who call themselves Taliban" should be brought into the Afghan government.

If Frist actually made these comments, the rationale is exactly the same that many have argued about Hamas and Hezbollah. So, on some level, Frist articulating the need for "political" solutions to some of the more vexing standoffs in the region can be considered progress.

The problem, however, is that the Taliban are not Hamas or Hezbollah and that these latter two political entities have not become popular in their states by terrorizing their own people. Hamas and Hezbollah's legiitimacy has several prongs -- helping to enhance the quality of life of their constituents, delivering various public services, rallying against Israel and perceived grievances about occupied lands and displaced Muslims, and an Islamist religious ethic.

However, to my knowledge, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah have created a tyranny over their own people of the sort that the Taliban clearly did. Also, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah provided the incubation chamber and helped hatch bin Laden's brand of radical transnational terrorism directed at Western nations and ruling regimes in the Middle East. Some will counter that the Muslim Brotherhood is the link here and that the Brotherhood has indeed tried to destabilize the governments in Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria -- but their efforts have had none of the potency of what bin Laden allied with the Taliban created.

So, what is Bill Frist thinking?

Although I think that Senate Majority Leader Frist would be an awkward choice to reflect a new course in the Bush administration's thinking, there is the small chance that Bill Frist is sending signals to the Taliban that America wants to "deal."

Such a deal would no doubt involve coughing up bin Laden and his operations. The deal would also probably involve some assistance if America decides to attack Iran.

I have thought for a while that the dearth of options for diplomacy with Iran required an arena for confidence building in some area not directly between America and Iran, but on the side. One of these would be Iran coming back to help the Karzai government stabilize Afghanistan and to find a way to co-opt or neutralize recalcitrant Afghan tribal chiefs and to curb and roll back expanding Taliban influence. Such assistance from Iran would not only be in Iran's strategic interests -- but would be in ours as well and could provide some node of embryonic trust from which other negotiations might be possible.

However, if such an accomodation with Iran is not worth pursuing, then allying with strong parties in Afghanistan might make sense -- even if as disagreeable as the Taliban.

I don't endorse this strategy, if it is such. And I have my doubts that Bill Frist really wanted to offer an olive branch to the Taliban and its adherents.

It could be he just misspoke. But if he stands by his comments, Frist's words have big implications for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas -- in different ways.

Stay tuned.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note