Negotiating with Terrorists: The Art of the Deal


The militarization of everyday life. Scenes from the Concord Police Department’s National Night Out on 08/06/2019.

The Trumpish Age has been a surrealist epoch of life imitating satirical art, an embarrassment of richest irony that may have prompted Nietzsche to declare, “Parody is dead and the electorate have killed it.” The absurdity of the daily news has become so overwhelming, so brutally cloying, that every attempt to take it seriously is an anachronistic act, politically as well as psychologically. All too fitting, then, that the twenty-ninth day of February, that preternatural and puzzling Leap Day, has produced the most cartoonish chapter of this yet-unfinished story. On this most particular date, the Trump Administration, which has been accused of everything but predictability, told the world that the United States military, known euphemistically as “the United States”, was finally prepared to withdraw its troops and weaponry from Afghanistan. This was not to say that the United States, including its military, was actively withdrawing from Afghan soil; such would be a rather reckless reading of the Administration’s words. The real announcement pertained to the preparatory period, which would last for fourteen months, at least, and which could take much longer than that. None of the variables have ever been explained.

In the twenty-first century, the only constant in any plan for American (military) withdrawal is its failure. For sixteen consecutive years, the American electorate have voted to conclude our military combat in the greater Middle East, first by the affirmative declaration of “Mission Accomplished”, then through the insouciant motto of “Hope and Change”, and lastly in contemptuous disdain for “endless, stupid wars”. Our leaders’ remarkably consistent inability to deliver on their promise to stop spilling blood helps explain the seemingly inexplicable faith that Ryan Fournier, the founder of the group Students for Trump, places in this latest fourteen-month plan. “This is historic,” or so he tweeted this morning, expressing his awe for an event that hasn’t even happened yet. One might ascribe his excitement to Trump’s newly strengthened chance of winning re-election, though only by forgetting that, should Trump be defeated in November, his successor will have the entire spring and half of the summer of 2021 to cancel the deal.

Fournier also failed to observe that the deal is as promising as it is empty. It was proposed to and accepted by the Taliban, an association of violent Islamists who apparently facilitate Afghanistan’s negotiations with the American government. The Taliban have amassed a tentative majority power in the course of our eighteen-year odyssey into the land of the Pashtuns, which may have been the point of our original embarkment. Regardless, the Taliban have yet to establish an insurmountable advantage over their competitors for control, and therefore, they must secure their cooperation, or their submission, before the so-called deal can be confirmed. Five thousand incarcerated members of the Taliban are scheduled for parole if this plan comes to fruition, and they will undoubtedly be active participants in the discussions and deliberations. Those should begin in less than two weeks, which gives the corporate media, sponsored by subcontractors with the Department of Defense, to celebrate the dawn of an infant peace. Will they mourn its premature mortality, too?

Should it all fall through, at least the children of America won’t be inconvenienced. Our nation is home to a generation of millions, possibly two generations of twice as many, who have lived in a time of exclusive war. In contextualizing this preliminary deal, the Associated Press describes 9/11 and argues, “The memory of the attacks on that crisp, sunny morning [has] faded, despite having changed how many Americans see the world.” The word “many” should be replaced by “all”, even encompassing those who were born after 9/11. Although they didn’t witness for 9/11, an event of quasi-religious proportions in the imagination of American adults, they experience it as the citizens of a country that, to their memory, has battled forever. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” George Orwell’s observation frightens me, but to the youngest generation, it is meaningless.


So, too, is my dishonest effort to distinguish myself from the younger generation. Although I recall 9/11 clearly, and can therefore remember, albeit only vaguely, a time when we weren’t embalmed by blood and oil, I was born twenty years after America stopped bombing Vietnam. I still hear the restless baby boomers shout at one another about its justifications and implications, as though they can preserve or undo history. History feels not their feeble blows and punches, nor does it remind them that they were not even born until several years after the end of World War II. One would be forgiven for mistakenly inferring, as did the Associated Press in its analysis of the legacy of 9/11, that our memory has faded. On the contrary, our memory—by which we must mean our paranoia, indignation, and eroticized interest in catastrophic violence—has not simply endured, but evolved. No longer do we daydream about bullets flying over European beaches or bloodstained trees in a Vietnamese jungle; now we imagine tanks sliding across a scorched desert to the righteous fanfare of harmless explosions.

Should we ever be compelled to graduate from our amusing fantasies of battles in the sand, might we pass the time by considering the practical cost of our inchoate Afghan project? The Associated Press has lowballed the price of our enterprise at a relatively modest $750 billion, while all of the other sources with which I’m conversant forms a figure closer to $825 billion. If the difference—a mere $75 billion, or more than the annual revenue needed for universal college education—adds up to little more than split hairs, then it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to the $5 billion needed to finish the job . . . assuming that, this time, the Pentagon officials are speaking sincerely. Whether or not they are, we can expect to increase the toll on human life, which, as in any war, will remain unquantifiable even after the final body drops. Wikipedia, the faceless entity that has never refused to publish information favorable to the American government, presents an incoherent table of data on this very subject, as if to discourage us from looking into it. According to this source, seventy thousand military personnel have perished in the so-called War in Afghanistan, a provocative title for the invasion of one county by five others. Nevertheless, we must credit Wikipedia for making mention of the thirty-nine thousand civilians drowned in the same bloodbath, a figure that might not be reproduced anywhere else in the mainstream.

Our reluctance to confront the gruesome consequences of our military’s misadventures is far from unique to this single “war”. Over the course of just a few short months in the spring and the summer of 2011, the United States (military) claimed the lives of as many Libyans as it has of Afghanis in almost twenty years. The American people have yet to hear of this, and not just because Wikipedia reports that fewer than eighty civilians died in the deconstruction of the Libyan state: an enormous portion of the American population do not know that their military entered Libya. That chapter of American history is being overwritten, and one day it may be omitted outright—and why shouldn’t it be, when even our own government has done all it can to pretend that its assault on Libya never happened? A pervasive amnesia complements the aforementioned unrelenting memory.


In both cases, the effect is intended. Throughout this essay, I have referenced an article written by Matthew Lee and Kathy Gannon for the Associated Press. When I read their piece this morning, I was struck by the following paragraph:

“The Taliban harbored bin Laden and his al-Qaida network as they plotted, and then celebrated, the hijackings of four airliners that were crashed into lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people.”

At some point today, their article was revised, and that particular paragraph was removed. Did an inattentive editor initially permit it before he recognized that this single sentence illustrated cleanly the moral incoherence of our foreign policy? Or perhaps he was concerned about the article’s tone: the authors wrote with such conspicuous astringency as to effectively alert the readers that the war would inevitably persist. Without this sentence, and without a vivid description of Mike Pompeo’s unenthusiastic mien, it is possible to believe that this “war” may finally reach its elusive end. Did these writers do their journalistic duty by throwing cold water on President Trump, whose relative restrain and humility in making his announcement exposed his own lack of faith in the deal?

Unfortunately, we can’t give them so much credit so soon. In both versions of the article, we find this disconcerting claim:

“It’s not clear what will become of gains made in women’s rights since the toppling of the Taliban, which had repressed women and girls under a strict brand of Sharia law. Women’s rights in Afghanistan had been a top concern of both the Bush and Obama administration, but it remains a deeply conservative country, with women still struggling for basic rights.”

It is clear that Lee and Gannon perceive, at least at some subconscious level, the absurdity of our Afghani agenda: we must topple the Taliban to restore the Taliban to power. However, this foolish misguidance is somehow exclusive to the Trump Administration, as if Bush and Obama were not following the same general template. This retrospective attribution of honorable intentions to the Bush Administration, and the ongoing unwillingness to acknowledge the Obama Administration’s sins, fetters the moral-political analysis of the neoliberal establishment. Might these historians look upon the Afghani and Libyan women sold into sexual slavery when their respective governments fell before the bombs of the United States (military)? Might they ask sincerely if Bush and Obama thought they could make the world clean by washing it in blood?

We have asked these questions, and in doing so have wandered very far from the original point. It is no longer strictly a matter of adhering to the unconvincing timeline designed within the deal, or the disheartening substance of our so-called success, or our capricious awarding of moral approval to our preferred government officials. It is all of these things, a morass of shapeless principles that forms wherever people lack philosophical and historical learning. We cannot comprehend Trump’s incomprehensible proclamation because we cannot contextualize it, not even within the seemingly limited framework of the twenty-first century. Our only comfortable response is to rage—joyously, like Fournier, or angrily, like Lee and Gannon. Perhaps this rather primitive stubbornness guided Bush when he refused the Taliban’s offer to retrieve bin Laden, an offer which, if accepted, would have prevented the entire invasion. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” we were told. Perhaps the same impulse motivated Trump when he did precisely that.

Below I have included a link to the piece written by Lee and Gannon for the Associated Press. I’ve also included what I have retained of the original piece before it was revised. It is not the complete text; I copied it before I boarded a flight in order to allow me to continue working in the air. When I finished working with/quoting from a specific paragraph, I deleted it from my document. If you find an archived version of the original, please let me know and I will include it here. Thank you for reading and supporting my work.

Under the agreement, the U.S. would draw its forces down to 8,600 from 13,000 in the next 3-4 months, with the remaining U.S. forces withdrawing in 14 months. The complete pullout, however, would depend on the Taliban meeting their commitments to prevent terrorism.

It only took a few months to topple the Taliban and send Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaida militants scrambling across the border into Pakistan, but the war dragged on for years as the United States tried establish a stable, functioning state in one of the least developed countries in the world. The Taliban regrouped, and currently hold sway over half the country.

The U.S. spent more than $750 billion, and on all sides the war cost tens of thousands of lives lost, permanently scarred and indelibly interrupted. But the conflict was also frequently ignored by U.S. politicians and the American public.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the ceremony in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, but did not sign the agreement. Instead, it was signed by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The Taliban harbored bin Laden and his al-Qaida network as they plotted, and then celebrated, the hijackings of four airliners that were crashed into lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people.

Addressing reporters after the signing ceremony, Pompeo said the U.S. is “realistic” about the peace deal it signed, but is “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.”

He said he was still angry about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and that the U.S. will not ”squander” what its soldiers “have won through blood, sweat and tears.” He said the U.S. will do whatever is necessary for its security if the Taliban do not comply with the agreement.

Pompeo had privately told a conference of U.S. ambassadors at the State Department this week that he was going only because President Donald Trump had insisted on his participation, according to two people present.

Dozens of Taliban members had earlier held a small victory march in Qatar in which they waved the militant group’s white flags, according to a video shared on Taliban websites. “Today is the day of victory, which has come with the help of Allah,” said Abbas Stanikzai, one of the Taliban’s lead negotiators, who joined the march.

Trump has repeatedly promised to get the U.S. out of its “endless wars” in the Middle East, and the withdrawal of troops could provide a boost as he seeks re-election in a nation weary of involvement in distant conflicts.

Trump has approached the Taliban agreement cautiously, steering clear of the crowing surrounding other major foreign policy actions, such as his talks with North Korea.

Last September, on short notice, he called off what was to be a signing ceremony with the Taliban at Camp David after a series of new Taliban attacks. But he has since been supportive of the talks led by his special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Under the agreement, the Taliban promise not to let extremists use the country as a staging ground for attacking the U.S. or its allies. But U.S. officials are loath to trust the Taliban to fulfill their obligations.

The prospects for Afghanistan’s future are uncertain. The agreement sets the stage for peace talks involving Afghan factions, which are likely to be complicated. Under the agreement, 5,000 Taliban are to be released from Afghan-run jails, but it’s not known if the Afghan government will do that. There are also questions about whether Taliban fighters loyal to various warlords will be willing to disarm.

U.S. officials say the eventual withdrawal of all American and allied troops from Afghanistan is not contingent on any specific outcome in talks among the Taliban and other Afghan factions about the country’s future. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the agreement.

It’s not clear what will become of gains made in women’s rights since the toppling of the Taliban, which had repressed women and girls under a strict brand of Sharia law. Women’s rights in Afghanistan had been a top concern of both the Bush and Obama administration, but it remains a deeply conservative country, with women still struggling for basic rights.

There are currently more than 16,500 soldiers serving under the NATO banner, of which 8,000 are American. Germany has the next largest contingent, with 1,300 troops, followed by Britain with 1,100.

In all, 38 NATO countries are contributing forces to Afghanistan. The alliance officially concluded its combat mission in 2014 and now provides training and support to Afghan forces.

The U.S. has a separate contingent of 5,000 troops deployed to carry out counter-terrorism missions and provide air and ground support to Afghan forces when requested.

Since the start of negotiations with the Taliban, the U.S. has stepped up its air assaults on the Taliban as well as a local Islamic State affiliate. Last year the U.S. air force dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any year since 2013.

Seven days ago, the Taliban began a seven-day “reduction of violence” period, a prerequisite to the peace deal signing.

“We have seen a significant reduction in violence in Afghanistan over the last days, and therefore we are also very close to the signing of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday in Brussels.

He was in Kabul on Saturday for a separate signing ceremony with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper. That signing was intended to show continuing NATO and U.S. support for Afghanistan.

“The road to peace will be long and hard and there will be setbacks, and there is a risk always for spoilers,” Stoltenberg said. “But the thing is, we are committed, the Afghan people are committed to peace, and we will continue to provide support.”


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