There’s some back-channel quiet talks going on between America and the Taliban on allowing the radical Islamic army that has terrorized Afghanistan – both when they were in power in the late 90’s and first years of this century, and when they were out of power and launching attacks around the country, including in the capital Kabul. How should we react to this news?

  • Claim it’s an outrage and that the Taliban is merely looking for ways to undercut Ghani’s forces and topple the US-backed Afghan leader, so they can finally reconstitute their violent theocracy once the last American troops have fled?
  • Decide that 17 years of war with little stability, or God forbid, nation-building to show for it means it’s time to deal with the Taliban as a possible legitimate participant in the tribal labyrinths of Afghan politics? That is, bring them to the negotiating table under clear conditions?

Welcome to the New Age of Realism. If you believe people like William Ruger and Michael Desch, (a Koch Institute vp for research and a Notre Dame political science professor), who writing in The National Interest, state:

In the post–Cold War era, in contrast, many conservatives—flush with victory in the Cold War and besotted with predictions of the end of history—turned this rhetoric into reality and embraced an activist, militarized and highly assertive stance toward the rest of the world. In doing so, these conservatives have embraced a revolutionary mind-set besotted with dreams of socially engineering the world.

That is, the neocons have, since the early 90’s, ripped conservative foreign policy from it’s realist roots and embarked on a radical experiment in nation building. Afghanistan being the longest and bloodiest attempt to forge a stable and moderately democratic state out of a tribal and feudal value system.

So, is this back-channel talk realist? Is it an example of the new realism that is being thrust to the center of the world stage by President Trump’s antics? And was the outrage over Trump’s performance in Helsinki (an outrage I shared) a reaction of the media and the foreign policy community at a sea-change in how we deal with rival powers? Even if Trump is indeed being played by Putin – who was educated and trained by, and became a part of, Soviet intelligence during the latter years of the Cold War?

How would a realist foreign policy perspective deal with the possibility of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table?

The Daily Beast has a fascinating piece on the process with special attention to two key players: former diplomat Robin Raphel, and former US Army Colonel and Afghan vet Chris Kolenda. Through months of back and forth negotiations, usually in Doha, they managed to help set up a series of moves – brief ceasefires and promises of some flexibility from Taliban leaders – that seems to have support from the Pentagon and at least some members of Trump’s administration. But the devil is truly in the details, and trust is as sparse a commodity in Afghanistan as a monsoon rain in Kabul.

It seems that it would be very easy to end up with a disastrous deal that would essentially return Afghanistan to the summer of 2001. Consider this from the article by Spencer Ackerman:

But while the two statements seemed to represent momentum for peace, they pointed to a diplomatic logjam. The Taliban reject Ghani’s government as a puppet and prefer to deal with its American patron. Ghani, with vocal American backing, positioned himself as the central figure. A bilateral U.S.-Taliban negotiation could undermine a government Washington has spent 17 years backing as the legitimate voice of Afghanistan. “There was a standoff,” Raphel said.

Within the Trump administration, there was also strong skepticism that the Taliban could deliver on the promises they heard via Kolenda and Raphel. For years, U.S. officials have held that the Taliban are a decentralized umbrella group of factions, rather than a united force. The impact of that conventional wisdom is to render diplomacy pointless, since it was unknown if Taliban interlocutors actually spoke for anyone else. A procession of military officers, for the better part of a decade, have preached fracturing the Taliban through “reconciliation” efforts, despite their dismal track record.

In other words, aside from the fact that one can hardly trust the Taliban to want to deliver on their offers to be part of some sort of peace process, the question has always been whether they could even do such a thing. The brief ceasefire about a month ago was apparent proof of a more centralized Taliban leadership. They hope. Until the next truck bomb kills dozens in Kabul. And then there’s the question of what kind of authority would Ghani have absent US support? Would he end up handcuffed in front of a Taliban Flag with a terrorist ready to slice his throat for the cameras? Or is that a savage ISIS tactic which the oh-so moderate Taliban would never indulge in?

What if some sort of peace accord was signed, US troops left over a period of a few months, and the Taliban then resumed control of the country? What if a realist foreign policy response would be to say, so what? Afghanistan wants to be a theocracy, or a feudal, tribal society. We wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives and tens of thousands of injured men and women. It didn’t work. It never will. Here’s Ruger and Desch again:

That social engineering, whether at home or abroad, is a difficult and fraught undertaking, often derailed by unintended consequences, and so should only be undertaken when markets and voluntary efforts fail or are overwhelmed by natural or man-made disasters. That the more we do for others, the less they will do for themselves. In short, the conservative watch words are humility and prudence.

So perhaps a realist foreign policy in Afghanistan would consider peace talks and a peace process involving the Taliban, the terrorists who sheltered Osama bin Laden. And if that peace process collapsed – after so many other dead ends in that Central Asian graveyard of ambition – then it would say we have reached an endpoint. This great game is over. Let Afghanistan be Afghanistan.

That would be nearly impossible for many in the foreign policy establishment to swallow. It couldn’t be any other way.

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