WASHINGTON — THE United States is still planning to hold peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, despite the fact that the group attacked the presidential palace and a C.I.A. office in Kabul, Afghanistan earlier this week. As was the case in the 1990s, negotiating with the Taliban now would be a grievous mistake.
Unlike most states or political groups, the Taliban aren’t amenable to a pragmatic deal. They are a movement with an extreme ideology and will not compromise easily on their deeply held beliefs. Before committing the blunder of negotiating with them again, American diplomats should read up on the history of Washington’s engagement with the Taliban during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The planned talks have been arranged through the good offices of Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. At the urging of Pakistan’s military, the United States agreed to the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. Taliban officials immediately portrayed the American concession as a victory. They flew the Taliban flag, played the Taliban anthem and called their new workplace the office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the name of the state they ran in the 1990s before being dislodged from power after 9/11. This was intentional. It reflected the Taliban’s view of the talks as the beginning of the restoration of their emirate.
There is no reason to believe — and no evidence — that the Taliban are now ready for political accommodation. Pakistan’s rationale for the talks differs little from the last two times it tried to save the Taliban from America’s wrath, after the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and immediately after 9/11. Pakistan’s goal has always been to arrange American talks with the Taliban without being responsible for the outcome.
Declassified State Department documents and secret cables made public by WikiLeaks show that in the 1990s, as now, Pakistan claimed it had contact with the Taliban but no control over them.
As the Taliban advanced in eastern Afghanistan in 1996, they took over several terrorist training camps run by various Pakistan-supported mujahedeen factions and Arab groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Taliban’s deputy foreign affairs adviser at the time, Abdul Jalil, told American officials that the “Arab” occupants of the camps had fled, and that Osama bin Laden’s precise location was unknown. Taliban interlocutors assured the United States that the “Taliban did not support terrorism in any form and would not provide refuge to Osama bin Laden.”
That was, of course, an outright lie. The C.I.A. concluded that the Taliban had closed down training camps run by their Afghan rivals but not the ones run by Bin Laden and Pakistani terrorist groups.
In October 1996, Mr. Jalil delivered a friendly diplomatic message from the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to American representatives, letting them know that “the Taliban think highly of the U.S., appreciated U.S. help during the jihad against the Soviets, and want good relations with the U.S.” This, too, turned out to be nothing but dissimulation. At one point, Pakistani officials even suggested that America “buy” Bin Laden from the Taliban.
Ironically, while American diplomats were interacting with Taliban officials, Western journalists traveling in Afghanistan often found evidence of large-scale terrorist training. An American Embassy cable in November 1996 spoke of an unnamed British journalist’s seeing “assorted foreigners, including Chechens, Bosnians, Sudanese” as well as various Arabs training for global jihad in Afghan provinces adjacent to Pakistan.
Mullah Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Taliban representative, told American officials in 1997 that Bin Laden’s expulsion was not a solution and urged them to recognize the legitimacy of Taliban rule “if the U.S. did not want every Afghan to become a Bin Laden.” By then, the Taliban had changed their story on Bin Laden. They admitted that he was their “guest” but insisted that they had “instructed him not to commit, support or plan any terrorist acts from Afghan soil.”
On Aug. 20, 1998, American missiles struck Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on the embassies in Africa. Two days later, Mullah. Omar called the State Department and demanded President Bill Clinton’s resignation, asserting that the missile attack would spread Bin Laden’s anti-American message by uniting the fundamentalist Islamic world and would cause further terrorist attacks.
Fifteen years later, the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors have hardly changed their arguments or their tendency to fudge facts. Americans may believe that talks offer an opportunity to end an expensive war that is no longer popular among Americans, but they shouldn’t forget the Taliban’s history of deception.
For the Taliban, direct dialogue with the United States is a source of international legitimacy and an opportunity to regroup. They are most likely playing for time while waiting for American troops to withdraw in 2014.
Everything about the talks in Qatar hints at déjà vu. America must enter these talks with a healthy does of skepticism, or not participate at all.