Military vets and others speak out about talks with Taliban

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

David Daly remembers sitting in a garden in Afghanistan two years ago and discussing military strategy with his counterparts in the Afghan army. At this point, the U.S. had spent a decade there.

A Marine offered a tactical suggestion, one that made perfect sense to the Americans but not to the Afghans. Daly, then a Marine captain, says an "old" Afghan major looked at him and said: "You think you have been here 10 years, but you have really only been here one year, 10 times."

For Daly, the major had perfectly encapsulated a quote often attributed, but probably wrongly, to Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

“He was right,” Daly writes in a first-person perspective on Yahoo News this week, “We were doing the same things there over and over with the same results. Instead of building on the experiences and lessons learned from each year, we failed to understand their point of view.”

That point of view, he says, includes bearing the strain of seemingly endless conflict, the last 12 years of which fell under American watch. “Now is the time for [Afghanistan] to rest,” he says.

The U.S. announced this week it wants to engage the Taliban in talks in Doha, Qatar, and Daly says he’s hopeful for change but pessimistic they will result in anything fruitful. The former Marine and contractor is one of several Americans—former and current service members, civilian workers and journalists—who shared their insights with Yahoo News on whether the U.S., the Taliban, Afghanistan’s government and even the Pakistanis can create peace.

“If history repeats itself, this will not be the case,” Daly says.

Daly, who served in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 and also deployed to Iraq four times, stresses that fault lies everywhere. It’s not just an American presence, he says, that endangers a chance for peace. “I believe, from what I have seen and been told, that the Taliban are terrorists," Daly says. "I believe they have caused a great deal of suffering in Afghanistan. I believe that the God-given freedoms every man, woman and child deserves have been suppressed by the Taliban.”

But, he says, the Taliban doesn’t believe that—and that perspective could hamper any chance at detente.

“I hope peace talks can bring an end to this war,” Daly continues. “But I believe we will enter the talks thinking we have 12 years of experience, yet be seen with only one year's worth, 12 times.”

If the Taliban are willing to talk, perhaps we should, too

Jonathan Raab, a U.S. Army infantryman who served in Afghanistan’s Logar Province in 2007 and 2008, thinks negotiations are necessary after years of cat-and-mouse stalemates against the Taliban.

Raab remembers spending a week hunting Taliban members who had defeated a small U.S. force and taken their weapons, equipment and the bodies of two dead soldiers. Raab and his team scoured the area for the Taliban but failed to find them. When U.S. forces cleared a village, the Taliban would vanish into the population. While American soldiers owned the day, the Taliban would return at night. They sat back, Raab says, and watched American soldiers exhaust themselves.

“The Taliban were then—as they are now—resourceful, cunning and often invisible,” Raab says, and that’s emblematic of the challenges the U.S. faces in negotiations.

“Since we are not willing to commit to win the war, perhaps it's better that we negotiate,” Raab adds. “In the summer of 2008, the average Afghan citizen saw our big operation through Logar Province as a show of force that ultimately proved fruitless. In the summer of 2013, I suspect the average Afghan—and the Taliban themselves—sees our military might as irrelevant.”

The key to talks, Raab argues, is understanding the nuances among the Taliban. He recalls: “One village elder once told my commanding officer, ‘There are good Taliban and bad Taliban. We want to get rid of the bad Taliban.’ A farmer who helps dig a hole for an IED to help feed his family is not a hard-core jihadist; a young boy forced to carry an AK-47 at night probably isn't mainline Taliban, either.”

Taliban are too intertwined in Afghanistan to ignore

Andrew Lubin agrees with Raab that one cannot generalize about the Taliban. Negotiating means knowing with whom you are talking. There are “Big T” Taliban—some “very bad guys,” he says, who are affiliated with the group’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar. Then there are the “little t” Taliban—everyday Afghans who have sided at times with the group because it meant money, food or security.

Lubin, a freelance combat journalist and defense analyst who was embedded seven times since 2007 with U.S. Marines in Helmand Province, says he repeatedly encountered farmers in Afghanistan who willingly tossed aside their AK-47s because better opportunities arose. This happened in part, he says, because of Operation Khanjar, a July 2009 effort that drove the Taliban out of villages in the Helmand River Valley and then allowed some of them to peacefully return.

“The Taliban have proven to be the brothers, sons and cousins of those Afghans who favor us,” Lubin says. “They range from conservative Muslims—whom the people find acceptable—to extremists—who are not. But regardless, they are a part of the Afghan social structure and need to be recognized accordingly.”

The U.S. Marines understood this in 2009, Lubin argues, so the U.S. government needs to recognize this as it enters talks. After decades of war, Afghanistan’s citizens desire peace, he says, and if Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government is unable to foster it (and provide basic services) then the extremist Taliban gain strength.

Karzai’s term expires next year, and Lubin says his replacement "is an open question. But long after the politicians in Kabul come and go, the Taliban's adhering to the tenets of Islam make them a substantial part of the Afghan social tapestry, and it's essential that the U.S. and Taliban begin a substantive discussion about the country's future.”