The Obama administration has confirmed that talks are under way with the Taliban to seek a diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan prior to the departure of coalition troops. The same Taliban conducted a spectacular assault late Tuesday on the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul. Seven suicide bombers and snipers killed 11 people. The attackers also died, some by design, the last three shot down on the hotel roof by NATO helicopters.
It would be reasonable to conclude from this brutal incident that the Taliban are more interested in coalition capitulation than peace. They share President Obama’s objective of having foreign troops depart Afghanistan, but they would rather push them out than invite them to leave. If the enemy reduced the number and scope of their attacks the political case for a quick pullout would be more palatable. Instead, they’re amplifying the violence. Mr. Obama refuses to discuss the concept of victory in Afghanistan; the Taliban are seeking a win.
This was no random attack by rogue elements in the Taliban camp. Reportedly the diplomatic team led by U.S. special envoy Ambassador Marc Grossman, who had met earlier with President Hamid Karzai, was the target. Even this degree of Taliban contempt for diplomatic immunity will not derail the detente. The consensus opinion seems to be that the road to a peace agreement is a bumpy one, and events like this should be expected along the way.
Such a response is nothing new. In late 1967, the State Department received a communique from the National Liberation Front (NLF), the Viet Cong’s political wing with whom the Johnson administration was desperate to negotiate. They said they were willing to discuss prisoner exchanges and broader issues but “now is not the right time to talk peace.” The State Department interpreted this message to mean that the NLF in fact did want to discuss peace but was playing hard to get. In fact, the communist diplomatic feelers were a ruse in advance of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The offensive failed, and the severely bloodied enemy was driven to the negotiation table as a last resort. Days before peace talks opened in Paris in May 1968 the communists launched an attack that became known as “Little Tet,” and despite the name, that month saw more U.S. deaths in Vietnam than any other.
Less sophisticated leaders might view a large-scale attack just days before a peace conference opens as evidence of bad faith. They might call the talks off, ramp up the “kinetic action” and show the enemy some backbone. The Johnson administration had been so anxious to engage in negotiations that the talks opened as scheduled, and then dragged on inconclusively for years. Expect the same from the Obama administration. Events like the InterContinental attack will not be allowed to get in the way of a settlement so Mr. Obama can bring this “war of necessity” to a quick close. The lesson to the Taliban will be that the Americans will pay any price, bear any burden, to be done with this war and get out. Lacking such sophistication, the Taliban still believe in old-fashioned concepts like winning.