With the war in Afghanistan now in its tenth year and both security and public support at their nadir, diplomats and generals in both Washington and Kabul focus increasingly on reconciliation with the Taliban as the key to stability and withdrawal. Engagement with enemies remains President Obama's wonder drug. Outlining his Afghanistan strategy last December, Obama declared, "We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens." Behind the scenes, both British and American officials have encouraged talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged on October 15 that U.S. forces have given Taliban safe passage to peace talks in Kabul. As General Petraeus explained, "We support that [dialogue], as we did in Iraq, as the United Kingdom did in Northern Ireland. This is the way you end insurgencies."
Afghanistan, however, is neither Iraq nor Ireland. It may be used to war, but it is also no stranger to negotiation. The most infamous example of engagement occurred in 1842: The British had occupied Kabul to prop up Shah Shuja Durrani, a weak but compliant ruler. Facing an insurgency waged by Dost Muhammad, the ruler whom the British helped unseat, British officials decided to negotiate their way out of the conflict. Promised free passage by his insurgent interlocutors, Gen. William Elphinstone led the British column out of Kabul. There followed Great Britain's worst defeat in history, at least until Singapore's fall a century later. Legend has it that, of the 16,000 British men, women, and children who left Kabul, only one — surgeon William Brydon — arrived in Jalalabad.
In Afghanistan, history is alive. More than a litany of names and dates, history is a narrative through which ordinary people interpret current events. The British may promote their engagement with the Irish Republican Army as a model, and Petraeus may see his engagement with Iraqi Sunni insurgents as an unbridled success, but both narratives are as foreign as sushi in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. It is Afghan history that matters. As Obama encourages dialogue with the Taliban, we cast Afghan president Hamid Karzai as Shah Shuja. Mullah Omar already describes himself as a new Dost Muhammad. That makes General Petraeus a latter-day Elphinstone. This is an unfair comparison, but, in Afghanistan, perception trumps reality. Indeed, even our allies embrace the narrative. In the Ministry of Defense, Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has hung a painting depicting Britain's 1842 defeat.
More recent history matters as well. During the Clinton administration, U.S. officials met with the Taliban more than 30 times. The Taliban promised repeatedly to close terror-training camps. They played American officials like fiddles, always telling interlocutors what they wanted to hear. Now-declassified records show that the State Department embraced the success of its engagement almost up to the first strike on the Twin Towers.
Today, the American push to engage the Taliban is based on the falsehood that the Taliban represent the Pushtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. True, Afghan Taliban may be Pushtun, but not all Pushtun are Taliban. At Afghanistan's foreign ministry, I heard fury at Special Representative Richard Holbrooke for his suggestion that cutting off a woman's nose was simply a Pushtun cultural practice. Likewise, Afghan Pushtun resent former Bush-administration official Robert Blackwill's proposal to partition Afghanistan, handing Pushtun areas to the Taliban. A former presidential adviser told me that "suggesting the Taliban represent Pushtun is akin to saying Pol Pot represents Cambodians." Indeed, America's Afghan allies worry that Karzai, himself a former Taliban official, will sacrifice them on the altar of appeasement. "Once again, America rewards its enemies at the expense of its allies," a former cabinet member complained.
There is similar skepticism in Islamabad. A retired Pakistani intelligence officer dismissed Karzai's reconciliation councils as a show for Western consumption. Pakistani officials also said it is naïve to believe money motivates the Taliban. Western pragmatism does not work when faced with an ideological army convinced it is on the verge of a historic victory.
Diplomacy may be a tool in the American arsenal, but engagement is not cost-free. Reconciliation can work, but only after a decisive Taliban defeat: The only path to victory — and U.S. security — is to defeat the Taliban leadership, wherever they may be. Talking to the Taliban now is not an exit strategy; it is at best a diversion, and at worst a strategy for defeat.