In its story today about Mitt Romney’s rather opaque views about Afghanistan, the New York Times mentions, almost in passing, something important that has drawn strangely little attention: Romney opposes talking to the Taliban.
That’s a relatively extreme position. For some time now, it’s been widely accepted within the foreign policy establishment that any realistic endgame in Afghanistan will involve some kind of negotiated peace deal with our enemies in Afghanistan. (Hillary Clinton has called the approach, “Fight, talk and build.”) Talks have been underway for months, and while they have been halting, superficial, and at times tragicomic, they’re not very controversial anymore, as this 2011 RAND paper explains:
In early 2010, when the [RAND paper's] authors began to participate in exploratory discussions… regarding the possibility of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, the very concept of talking to the enemy was controversial in official circles and little discussed beyond them. The objective of a negotiated peace has since been firmly embraced by both the Afghan and American governments, supported by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and endorsed by most of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
On the main issue that most Americans think about–troop levels and withdrawal deadlines–Romney’s rhetoric suggests mostly subtle differences with Obama. Romney whacks Obama for being too open about his intentions for exiting the country, and implies he’ll listen more closely to the military’s advice, but he doesn’t disavow Obama’s 2014 goal for ending America’s combat role in the country.
Rejecting peace talks, by contrast, is a game-changer. It casts into doubt all our assumptions about the war–including that 2014 deadline. “We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban,” Romney has said. But we’ve been trying to do that for an awfully long time, with awfully limited results. That’s why even people like George W. Bush’s last national security adviser, Steve Hadley, say things like this:
U.S. political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, and our military commanders, have consistently argued that the conflict in Afghanistan will not end by military means alone. The elimination of al Qaeda’s safe havens and the establishment of long-term peace and security in Afghanistan and the region — the key U.S. national security objectives — is best assured by a sustainable political settlement that strengthens the Afghan state so that it can assume greater responsibility for addressing the country’s security and economic challenges.
There’s no question that peace talks with the Taliban might prove fruitless–a diversion as Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders (the splintered nature of the Taliban is another complication) wait until they can take what they want, by force, after we’re gone. Romney’s opposition to talks is intellectually defensible. But its implication is political poison. Fighting to “defeat” the Talban could take many more years, and tens of thousands more American troops. And that’s something Americans, more than ever, do not want. At what point will Romney be forced to square this incredibly awkward circle?