The Taliban and the PLO
The story below is not a history lesson; it is a cautionary tale. What happens when the United States ignores the nature and behavior of an adversary and pretends that a) people wedded to a violent ideology and believing deeply in their ultimate victory will accept less and allow their enemy to "win" as well; and b) legitimizes them and providing concessions will get them to do it?
In 2006, a 1973 State Department memo regarding the murder of two American and one Belgian diplomat in Sudan was declassified. It acknowledged, "The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasir Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and head of Fatah."
That was generally believed to be the case, but still it was a shock to see that the United States government had known (then) for 33 years that Arafat, murderer of Israelis and Jews, was also the murderer of Cleo Noel, George Curtis Moore, and Guy Eid, Western diplomats in service. The three were machine-gunned to death with the "full knowledge and personal approval" of the man with whom the U.S. government opened relations during the Reagan administration with the "full knowledge and personal approval" of Colin Powell, then-NSC adviser to the president and later secretary of State, the person responsible for American diplomats abroad. (Powell told a small group -- of which I was a member -- that "everyone has something to say, and we should offer them the opportunity to say it.")
The world could have been spared a lot of trouble if the U.S. government had told what it knew in 1973. Arafat might not have become an acceptable interlocutor for the United States. He might not have been someone for whom the U.S. government betrayed people who worked and died in its service. He might not have become a "partner" for an unwilling Israel, pressured by the United States.
Instead, the State Department hid its contemporaneous knowledge of Arafat's crime against American diplomats in hopes of enticing/bribing him to make peace with Israel.
Arafat's repaid the favor with airplane hijackings and the beating to death of U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, the Coastal Road Massacre that killed an American photographer, the 1974 massacre of 23 Israeli high school students, and other similar atrocities. He ran training camps in Lebanon for a terrorist assemblage that included the Red Army Faction; Brigata Rosa; Sandinistas; and various Asians, South Americans, and Middle Easterners. He led two bloody uprisings that targeted Israeli civilians, the second of which killed more than 1,000 people (47,000 is the American equivalent). He orchestrated rabid anti-Semitism and the veneration of death in Palestinian society.
With the notable exception of the George W. Bush administration (the president refused ever to meet with Arafat), U.S. governments have pressed Israel for concessions, first to Arafat and then to his successors -- recognition of and talks with the PLO, land and water rights, tax revenue, security forces, settlement freezes, borders, upgrading the diplomatic status of the PLO -- after which the Palestinians would be expected to offer recognition of the legitimacy and permanence of the State of Israel.
The United States apparently didn't/doesn't understand that Palestinian leadership really believes in its ultimate victory, which makes concessions to Israel irrelevant at best and traitorous at worst. To pretend that the Palestinians think what Americans think they ought to think is foolish.
Today, we are engaged in similar foolishness with the Taliban. Ignoring what it is, what it says, what it did, and what it does, the United States government has permitted the host of al-Qaeda and the nemesis of the elected Afghan government to open a "diplomatic office" in Doha predicted on the first American concession.
What concession? At West Point in 2010, President Obama was explicit about the Taliban and American interests:
The Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism[.] ... We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government ... we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum[.] ... We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.
Has the Taliban renounced al-Qaeda or violence, or pledged to respect human rights, including those of women? Has it accepted the Afghan constitution? Has it said it would stop throwing acid in the faces of girls who go to school, or stop stoning homosexuals? No. Have we decided that those things are unimportant? Not exactly. But the president spoke in 2010. In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton announced that the president's conditions could be met at the end of negotiations, not before. So the secret talks, which were started with concession #1 and without the Afghan government (U.S. concession #2?), are being formalized.
The next concession -- mandated by the need to withdraw American troops at a politically palatable (for Americans) pace -- has to come from President Karzai. Calling this an "Afghan-led, Afghan-supported" process, the administration is pressuring the Karzai government to play, although the last Afghan-led peace talks ended with the assassination of Karzai's top peace-broker in a suicide bombing.
The Taliban, on the other hand, isn't pretending to talk to the Afghan government. It announced that there are "two main parties involved ... the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (note the name) and ... the United States of America and its foreign allies." The Taliban is explicit in its goal of obtaining the release of Taliban prisoners at Guantánamo -- something only the U.S. government can produce (look for concession #3 to move the "process" along). And the Taliban is explicit in its determination to rule Afghanistan again as an Islamic state, with all that that implies. Among the Taliban representatives in Doha are reported to be the personal secretary to Mullah Omar and the "defense minister" of the Taliban government. How can the administration believe that these people will concede anything to the United States, to Karzai, to the Afghan people, or to modernity? More worrisome, what further concessions is the U.S. prepared to offer in the name of the Afghan "peace process" when things don't move as the administration plans?
The president, in his 2006 West Point speech, argued convincingly that Afghanistan is not "another Vietnam." But the analogy was a straw man.
The correct analogy for the American embrace of the Taliban -- a radical, terrorist organization dedicated to the worst of the 9th century and determined to put its boots on the neck of the Afghan people while advancing the international ideology with which it is aligned to the point of suicide -- is not Vietnam.
It is the American embrace of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat.
Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to the Middle East since 1982. She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports (1995-2011).