A Rodney King moment, as US tries to restart talks with the Afghan Taliban

Marc Grossman, US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with senior Afghan and Pakistani officials this week. 'The shared goal is to open the door for Afghans to sit down with other Afghans to talk about the future of their country,' Mr. Grossman said.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Marc Grossman, special US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan (second left), shakes hands with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, second right, prior to their meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday.

Marc Grossman, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had a Rodney King moment this week as he tried to find a path for restarting talks with the Afghan Taliban.

“The shared goal is to open the door for Afghans to sit down with other Afghans to talk about the future of their country,” said Mr. Grossman Friday in Islamabad, Pakistan, after a meeting with senior Afghan and Pakistani officials.

Maybe it was only because this week marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of police officers who were caught on tape savagely beating Mr. King. Whatever the reason, Grossman’s kumbaya-esque comment conjured up the famous plea that King issued after the verdict: “Can we all get along?”

Just as the poetry of that simple question seemed to innocently disregard layers of racial tensions and ingrained divisions, the American diplomat’s description of a dialogue where bitterly opposed Afghan factions could huddle together and plan a common future seemed to gloss over daunting complexities.

It remains to be seen whether the Afghan Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government can sit down together and negotiate anything. Afghan President Hamid Karzai does occasionally refer to the Taliban as “Afghan brothers,” but Taliban leaders prefer terms like “lackeys” to describe the Afghans running the Kabul government.

Grossman and other American officials insist that the hoped-for talks are about Afghans talking with Afghans. But the Taliban view the negotiations primarily as a way to deal with the Americans – on issues like the fate of their fighters in American custody. 

Then there is the matter of the conditions that the United States has put on any deals that the Afghans, once together, might reach. The Taliban must renounce any connection to Al Qaeda, give up violence, and respect the Afghan Constitution – including its recognition of the rights of all Afghan citizens, including women.

Some Afghan officials and regional experts say that the Afghan Taliban, its ties to Al Qaeda already weakened, might be willing to sever connections to the terrorist organization, which it harbored when it was in power in Afghanistan. Getting the Taliban to give up their arms will be harder.

But getting the Taliban to accept a constitution that it considers to have been imposed by infidel foreigners will be the hardest of the conditions, experts say. The ferocity with which the Taliban continue to thwart the education of Afghan girls – closing down girls’ schools that are practically under the noses of US and NATO soldiers – does not suggest a softening on core ideological principles.

All this tells some that the US needs to remain very cautious of the Taliban’s motives in eventually returning to talks. They worry that the US, eager to arrive at NATO’s May summit in Chicago with hope for a political settlement in Afghanistan, will unwittingly open the way to a Taliban return to power.

As Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington says: “Rather than long-shot talks with the Taliban leadership, Washington should focus on strengthening anti-Taliban elements that share the US interest in preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a safe haven for international terrorists.”

That position might be criticized as only prolonging a war that has already gone on for more than a decade. One thing it doesn’t do, on the other hand, is echo an idealistic “Can we all get along?”

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