For the United States to end its longest war and bring the troops home from Afghanistan, it must negotiate and cooperate with the leaders of the Taliban, the most powerful and stable political power in that nation.
That's a bitter pill to swallow, knowing that the Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida operation leading up to the attacks of 9/11. And it feels like a retreat, not just from conflict but from honor and decency, too, because the Taliban brutalized Afghanistan with civilian massacres, human trafficking and a systematic revocation of the rights of women while it governed from 1996 until 2001.
In a complicated and vicious world, the United States can justify negotiating with Taliban leaders if the partnership is in the pursuit of a greater good, and if it motivates these despots toward better behavior. But it cannot honor their involvement in the process before they have delivered on a single promise, especially with the blood of just-killed Americans still on their hands and the approaching anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
President Donald Trump has promised to end this war, and his administration has pursued that goal persistently. But by demanding that leaders of the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan come together to ink a pact at Camp David, he may have derailed peace negotiations and their hope of bringing home 14,000 American troops, and denigrated America's image in the process.
Trump said Monday of those negotiations, "As far as I'm concerned they're dead." If that's the case, Trump's egotistical drive to be seen as the prime architect of a big deal and spectacle he could use to buoy his reelection campaign may itself have swamped the effort.
If the United States wants to withdraw from Afghanistan with any hope that it won't lead to an immediate catastrophe, the Taliban has to be a partner, no matter how regrettable that partnership may be. It's no good trying to stop or prevent atrocities by negotiating only with good people, because they're not the ones who commit atrocities. And the intensive, expensive and bloody military effort by the United States to force Afghanistan into becoming a stable and free democratic nation failed.
After 18 years, the war in Afghanistan has killed 2,400 Americans and cost $2 trillion. The U.S.-backed official government is so corrupt and impotent, it has largely been left out of peace negotiations. And a resurgent Taliban has taken control of more than half the nation's provinces even as U.S. soldiers worked to stop it.
Yet working with the Taliban makes sense at the moment, because its ambition does not stretch beyond its own region and because it has learned that it faces as much danger as the United States does from terrorist groups like the Islamic State. But a pact with the Taliban won't be a cause for celebration — and its leaders will deserve no recognition — until they consistently deliver on their promises to both fight terrorism and treat women with respect.