Indispensable for Peace: Should the United States Negotiate with Terrorists?

Sarah Holloway

The United States is approaching year seventeen of the war in Afghanistan—the longest experienced in U.S. history. Where both the Obama and Trump administrations expressed intentions to withdraw troops from the conflict, the reality of the situation on the ground has prevented the realization of this goal. Despite the Taliban’s insistence that it will only negotiate with the United States, the U.S. has maintained the strict policy that all peace talks be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.” However, many American military leaders have arrived at the conclusion that this war cannot be won militarily and are now advocating for diplomatic solutions. The recent Eid ceasefire called by Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has sparked renewed hope in this possibility after the Taliban agreed to halting violent activity for the proposed three months—something that has not occurred in the history of the conflict.

This renewed call for talks between the U.S. and the Taliban is largely due to the terrorist organization regaining control of several districts in Afghanistan—now with 13% under Taliban influence and 30% contested according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. With the U.S.-backed Afghan government losing ground and confidence in military capabilities waning, the consideration of new policy options is essential.

While the justifications for introducing more diplomatic approaches are legitimate, there are real obstacles that complicate this potential transition. Many question the reliability of the Taliban in conducting peace talks, as the organization continues to conduct violent attacks throughout the region. Publicly breaking the traditional stance that the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists poses a significant political risk; should negotiations end unfavorably, public opinion toward the current administration would suffer greatly. A common argument is that that negotiations should not be considered until the United States has gained stable leverage in the situation, however, the recent resurgence of the Taliban makes this prospect highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.
These concerns are valid; however, they have largely prevented progress from being made on the Afghan front. The United States government spends approximately $45 billion per year in Afghanistan, and as of July 2018, 2,372 Americans have died; the U.S. arguably holds the most power in bringing both the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiating table, yet policy has remained on this increasingly detrimental trajectory.

Currently, neither side has much incentive to engage in talks; for the Taliban, postponing until the April 2019 elections of the Afghan government could mean a new administration to work with or opportunities to delegitimize the institution. Conversely, the Afghan government establishing diplomatic relations with the Taliban could lend them unwanted legitimacy. The presence of the United States is essential to achieving any progress in these endeavors. Regardless of whether the U.S. continues the current military strategies in Afghanistan or makes new efforts at diplomacy with the terrorist organization, it must be willing to take significant risks to end the conflict.

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