Answering a question from the Washington Examiner during a press conference on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that Afghanistan's security situation needs improving before the United States can negotiate with groups such as the Taliban and Haqqani network.
As he put it:
We are going to have to improve the security environment... the environment today is not conducive to carrying out those types of activities... so part of what we're going to have to do is first ensure we're ready to engage when conditions permit us to engage. It's again why Pakistan is very important in this discussion as well. Pakistan can facilitate much of that discussion.
Tillerson's answer was an honest one, but I somewhat disagree with him.
President Trump's stated willingness on Monday to negotiate with insurgents who are willing to make compromises with the U.S. is urgent. While those individuals are avowed U.S. enemies, they are also crucial towards Afghanistan's more stable future. But if we wait to appoint a U.S. negotiator until security improves, we'll be waiting for years. Instead, we should appoint someone now and let them endure the risks.
This is not something the State Department likes to do. After all, as an organization built around the promotion of peace through diplomacy, force protection concerns (keeping employees alive) is an absolute priority. Far more of a priority, for example, than with the U.S. military.
That is not to say that the military is callous with its personnel, it simply recognizes that doing the job effectively requires the acceptance of risk. The State Department has long resisted that belief and in so, has limited its personnel in their ability to accomplish the most that is possible. Tillerson is speaking to that dimension of concern.
Nevertheless, it gets more complicated.
That's because whoever sits down with individuals from the Haqqani network, Afghan Taliban, or Pakistani Taliban is going to have to be senior enough to show sufficient respect to the Taliban. Absent that, we will offend their Pashtun culture and harm our own efforts. I would imagine the job will fall to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), but unless the U.S. negotiator is a risk taker with an intelligence or military background, who can relate with the enemy, the discussions will be dead before they even begin.
For my two cents, the right candidate will be an energetic man (the Taliban won't respect a female negotiator) with deep knowledge of Afghanistan and the region, who has previously fought those he will be negotiating with.
Whoever Tillerson and Trump appoint, it will need to be someone who knows Afghanistan, knows U.S. enemies and how to win their trust, and is happy risking their life on a daily basis. But they should not wait for that appointment.
Diplomacy involves risk, and progress cannot wait.