POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Karzai Will Talk To Taliban, Obama Will Not

Afghan President Hamad Karzai announced on Thursday that he would be willing to talk to the leadership of the Taliban -- the main force behind the insurgency that has destabilized his country -- in a bid for peace.

The Obama White House, however, won't yet make such a public commitment.

During the press briefing on Wednesday, Huffington Post asked spokesman Robert Gibbs, "to what extent, if any, the White House's Afghan strategy will involve negotiating with Taliban leaders?" He responded by saying negotiations and diplomacy with the Taliban would only occur with those officials who "are willing to walk away from the type of activity they've been involved in." Once that occurs, Gibbs added, "reintegration into society is certainly possible."

So talks with Taliban officials will only come after they walk away from the Taliban?

"Well, you can't be part of the insurgency -- you either are or you aren't," Gibbs replied.

The circumstances confronting the Karzai and the Obama administrations are vastly different with respect to the diplomatic approaches they can or will take with the Taliban. Karzai's compelling strategic interest is to foster political stability within his borders. The United States's imperative is to eliminate threats to national security.

That said, the notion of talking to the Taliban isn't fully rejected within American foreign policy circles. Former Centcom commander and retired General Anthony Zinni declared, as late as October 10, 2009, that he "absolutely" believed the U.S. should be "negotiating with elements of the Taliban."

"Just like we did in Anbar province in Iraq where we found that there were reconcilable elements in those that we were fighting," he told CNN.

The topic is much thornier for politicians to tackle, with even the most vocal of war opponents unwilling to endorse direct negotiations with the group that harbored al Qaeda before 9/11. In an interview Huffington Post conducted with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) back in March of 2009, the Wisconsin Democrat said he would only be in favor of talking with the Taliban if it was done through intermediaries.

"We should speak to others in the region who are able to talk to the Taliban," he said. "I'm not prepared to say we should speak directly to the Taliban... There are those who can make it clear to the Taliban that it is in their interest to try and come together with some kind of a reasonable government in Afghanistan and to stop trying to destabilize Pakistan, and that their continued relationship with al-Qaeda will be devastating for them."

To be fair, it seems likely that the administration won't reject third party talks -- like those Feingold proposed back in March -- out of hand. But at this juncture, the president and his aides don't seem prepared to have direct negotiations, a la Karzai.