President Obama’s promise over the weekend to “reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban” has generated some rather strong reactions, mostly in the negative.


UPI’s Claude Salhani sets the stage:

A question that was put to this correspondent Sunday in a television interview by a reporter following Obama’s statement to the NYT was how can there be “moderates” among such an extremist group as the Taliban? How can there be moderates among a group that took the country back to the Middle Ages and then some; that stoned to death women accused of adultery at half-time during soccer games in crowded stadiums? A group that dynamited ancient giant statues of Buddha; that banned the arts, music and even the flying of kites?

The answer is that everything is relative. Of course, there is a “moderate” wing of the Taliban, just as there must be a hard-line wing, too. Just like there was a moderate wing of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Did that make them any less communist? The real question is how moderate are the moderates? And can the United States do business with them?

Sayed Salahuddin, writing for Reuters, rounded up quotes from quite a few analysts and was hard pressed to find anyone with much positive to say.   For example,  Qaseem Akhgar proclaimed, “‘Moderate Taliban’ is like ‘moderate killer’. Is there such a thing?”   Conservative commentator Cal Thomas wondered whether they “favor shorter burkas on women”  and would let them “handle coins by themselves.”

One exception Salahuddin found was Pakistani analyst Rahimullah Yousufzai, who  welcomed Obama’s willingness to change policy directions.  Still, he too is a skeptic.  “They would like to pacify some elements of the Taliban but I have my doubts about this,” he said. “The Taliban are very rigid in their demands. They actually don’t want to talk unless there is some guarantee that Western forces will leave,” he said.

The Guardian‘s Jon Boone was dismissive as well.  He quotes Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board, “I don’t know of a single peace process that has been successfully negotiated from a position of weakness or stalemate.”

Indeed, even the Taliban themselves are poo-pooing the idea.

Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman contacted by telephone, said: “They say they want to speak to moderate Taliban but they will not be able to find such people because we are united around the aim of fighting for freedom and bringing an Islamic system to Afghanistan.” He added that Obama’s comments were a reflection of the fact that the Americans had “become tired and worried”.

Still, as Steve Hynd recently wrote for New Atlanticist, the term “Taliban” is tossed about so loosely these days as to be nearly bereft of meaning.  As AEI’s Frederick Kagan – hardly a peacenick — put it:

In general terms, any group that calls itself “Taliban” is identifying itself as against the government in Kabul, the U.S., and U.S. allies. Our job is to understand which groups are truly dangerous, which are irreconcilable with our goals for Afghanistan–and which can be fractured or persuaded to rejoin the Afghan polity. We can’t fight them all, and we can’t negotiate with them all. Dropping the term “Taliban” and referring to specific groups instead would be a good way to start understanding who is really causing problems.

One hopes — indeed, presumes — this is what Obama was getting at.  If so, he’s on the right track.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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