Afghanistan: Speaking With the Enemy

The Bush Administration may not be practicing what the president preaches when it comes to "appeasement." In a speech to Israel's Knesset, which was regarded as an attack on Barack Obama and other Democrats, Bush condemned as a "foolish delusion" the belief "that we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals." But the administration itself has sanctioned such discussions in Sunni areas of Iraq, Pakistani tribal areas and Afghanistan. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the United States "need[s] to figure out a way to develop some leverage with respect to the Iranians and then sit down and talk with them."

That notion evidently extends to elements of the Taliban. Mark Sedra, a Canadian expert on Afghanistan, says high-level U.S. officials, who he declined to name, admitted during a private Washington think-tank conference earlier this year that there was no purely military solution to Afghanistan's problems and expressed a "willingness" to negotiate with "moderate" Taliban figures. Four administration officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing policy deliberations, told NEWSWEEK that Washington has already assented to efforts by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to talk with Taliban factions that do not share the nihilist religious extremism of Supreme Leader Mullah Omar. "If the Afghans want to peel away so-called [Taliban] 'reasonables,' we're fine with that," one of the officials said. Those inside the administration who object, said another of the officials, have been somewhat mollified by the use of semantic legerdemain: "We say it's not negotiation. It's dialogue."