Steve Coll has found something significant:
Last year, however, as the U.S.-led Afghan ground war passed its ninth anniversary, and Mullah Omar remained in hiding, presumably in Pakistan, a small number of officials in the Obama Administration—among them the late Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—argued that it was time to try talking to the Taliban again.
Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.
Of course, one hopes that these “senior Afghan Taliban leaders” are not fruit-sellers plucked off the streets of Karachi by zealous MI6 agents; regardless Coll’s account leaves far more questions than answers:
- By it’s very vagueness, including the meaning of “talks,” this could, quite literally mean anything. The last time NATO was negotiating with a street vendor pretending to be a Taliban, Holbrooke actually rejected the idea of assigning them much meaning at all, as they were so exploratory and with such a tiny supposed faction. He was more right than he knew, but I think the point still stands—we have no idea what this means.
- As recently as two months ago, there was zero indication from the military intelligence side that the administration was interested in these sorts of talks. That doesn’t mean they weren’t happening, but it’s rare that something this supposedly important is kept quiet, with zero scuttlebutt or RUMINT.
- There is no indication of the players involved. Coll indicated he spoke with Mullah Zaeef, but everyone else is “senior” or “briefed on.” This could be something as basic as Afghan braggadocio (a friend of Zaeef whispering into his ear) or something happening at such a low level it is functionally meaningless (a mid-level FSO talking with a Taliban fixer at a local guesthouse). We just don’t know.
- What isn’t vague in Coll’s account is already public knowledge—Omar’s 1998 call, for example, or Team Obama publicly wishing for negotiations. So when you get down to it, Coll is writing 1500 words to describe a few interviews with people who’d allow so little on the record that they wound up saying nothing at all. I’m not sure there’s really any “there” there.
BUT, there could be. And here’s where it gets interesting. For starters, someone in the Obama administration felt the need to leak this information to start a ruckus—not to the usual stenographers at the New York Times’ DC bureau, but with a reporter and a magazine known for fastidiousness and a shyness about rumors (even Seymour Hersch’s magazine work for the New Yorker is sourced solidly). So this was deliberate, and it was strategic. I’ll let someone else speculate as to what that strategy.
With one exception. It is worth noting, as Coll does, that the military does not believe the time is right for negotiations. They follow the Ashley Tellis school of negotiations, which states that one can only talk to one’s enemies from a position of strength. And that has, indeed, been the purpose of the last year’s surge into Helmand and Kandahar—to “break the momentum” (ahh, that poisonous word) of the Taliban.
In fact, this is the ultimate destination of all the happy talk suddenly coming out of Marjah—the Taliban have had their momentum reversed, in the military’s eyes. This should, following a logical stance that negotiations must be done from strength, lead to a realization that the time is right, while the Taliban are reeling and U.S. troops are the highest they will ever be, to begin the talks.
That is not, however, where ISAF is heading. Rather, when Marine Corps Major General Richard Mills describes the Taliban as “marginalized,” what he is doing is making the same argument against negotiations the military made in 2002: the Taliban is a spent force, it is defeated, it is reduced to dead-enders. There is no need, in this mindset, for negotiations, because we’ve been so successful we don’t have to consider ever compromising on anything to achieve a settlement.
So maybe this is the point of this leak: to present the case that the Obama administration is, finally, ready to talk with the Taliban. Even though the military remains dogged in its insistence that the Taliban be bloodied, or defeated, or marginalized before anything else can happen, the Obama administration might be using this leak to signal that it is, in fact, ready for talks to begin.
If that is the case—and it is a huge “if” based on the several assumptions I stated above, any of which could be wrong—then it is an important sea-change in Obama’s views on negotiations. But, what Coll has described so far is not a sea-change: it is a mirror image of what we already thought was happening last fall. So, despite all the interest this piece will create, we still have absolutely no idea what Coll is reporting, who is involved, or what it might mean. In other words, unless it is serving part of a larger messaging plan from the White House, I’m at a loss to explain why either Coll or the New Yorker felt the need to run it.