A Tale of Two Skepticisms: Fighting and Talking with the Taliban During the Obama Years


When I saw the Washington Post reports on the so-called Afghanistan papers, claiming that “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan … making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable,” it took me back to a conversation I had with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the May 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago.

The Post based its coverage on interviews conducted by the office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction  with serving and former officials of the U.S. government, including me. From April 2009 to October 2013, I served as senior adviser to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I had been hired by that position’s first incumbent, the late Richard Holbrooke, who died from a torn aorta that erupted during a Dec. 10, 2010, meeting in Clinton’s office. That was less than two years after he was sworn in and less than two weeks after the first diplomatic contact between the United States and the Taliban since 9/11, at a safe house outside of Munich. Opening that channel had been my principal task. In May 2012, as adviser to Holbrooke’s successor, Marc Grossman, I attended the NATO summit, where, according to the Chicago Tribune, “the main agenda item was the future of Afghanistan.” In his opening address, President Barack Obama called for a “transformational decade of peace.”



With 2.6 million square feet of space spread among four interconnected structures on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, McCormick Place, where the summit convened, is the largest convention center in North America. More than 30 years earlier, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I would sometimes jog up the lakeside path from Hyde Park to McCormick Place and back. Now I was inside for the first time.

On the Seventh Floor

The Taliban had suspended talks with the United States two months earlier, on March 15, 2012, and I had lost the occasional direct access to Clinton that I had through Holbrooke. Holbrooke not only reported to Clinton, he was also her personal friend. He would take me to meetings with her on the seventh floor of the State Department building, sometimes with a retinue of other “senior advisers” — we all reported directly to Holbrooke — and sometimes, for the most sensitive discussions about opening the channel to the Taliban, alone.

Grossman occasionally reminded the staff that this was his second time cleaning up after Holbrooke: In August 1997 he had taken over as assistant secretary of state for European Affairs sixteen months after Holbrooke had left the position. A retired ambassador who had served as director-general of the Foreign Service, Grossman tried to establish regular order in the special representative’s office. That meant, among other things, that I now reported to a deputy rather than to Grossman, who took only a deputy and a notetaker with him to meetings with the secretary.

I had watched Holbrooke making those “rosy pronouncements” described by the Washington Post, but I knew he did it not to deceive, but as a duty to promote a policy he did not believe in. He struggled to communicate his doubts to others inside and outside of the administration. On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, as the Obama administration’s review of Afghanistan policy was getting underway, Holbrooke assembled a galaxy of luminaries at the Brookings Institution: Brookings president and former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott; former President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger; Hillary Clinton’s favorite retired general, Iraq hawk Jack Keane; Bruce Riedel of Brookings, a former CIA counter-terrorist analyst who had drafted Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan; former White House chief of staff John Podesta; President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; Brookings analyst and David Petraeus’ roommate at Princeton, Michael O’Hanlon; multiple Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Coll; Washington Middle East guru, former ambassador to Israel, and Brookings vice president for foreign policy Martin Indyk; and former ambassador to India, Frank Wisner, Holbrooke’s friend since 1965 in Saigon. From the special representative’s office I was joined by Dan Feldman, Vikram Singh, Vali Nasr, and Rina Amiri — the only woman in the room, a situation she found “intense.”

Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, for whom I worked when I met Holbrooke in 1995, phoned in. Holbrooke’s friendship with Gelb also dated back to the Vietnam War: They met when Holbrooke came back to Washington in 1966. The following year, as an official of Robert McNamara’s Department of Defense, Gelb had directed the study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, to which some have compared the Afghanistan papers. Holbrooke contributed a chapter on “pacification,” an outmoded term for what Washington came to call “counter-insurgency.” But as Holbrooke told me over dinner one night, though the government had changed the names of the programs since Vietnam, one thing had not changed: They still didn’t work.

Secretary Clinton and “the White House” knew of our meeting, Holbrooke said, and he asked for a “no fault discussion.” The discussion was framed around the March 2009 Riedel report, known formally as the “White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.” That report defined the United States’ “core goal” as “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” The primary recommendation for achieving that goal was “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.” That in turn required using U.S. forces to secure Afghanistan against a return of al Qaeda as the United States bolstered the legitimacy of the Afghan government and expanded the size and capability of the Afghan security forces. The work in Afghanistan was backed up by efforts to reorient Pakistan away from support for the Taliban. This strategy was necessary, the report argued, because “Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s hard core that have aligned themselves with al Qaeda are not reconcilable and we cannot make a deal that includes them.”

Like other U.S. policy documents on Afghanistan, the Riedel report said not a word about the history, politics, economy, society, or culture of Afghanistan. It was organized exclusively around U.S. objectives. I had learned not to raise this concern. When I had done so previously, Holbrooke told me, “You know why you will never succeed in government? You are too concerned with substance. Government is all about process.” That Saturday Holbrooke asked me not to say anything until he gave the go-ahead.

In the Room

The participants mused over the failure of the recent presidential election to bolster the Afghan government’s legitimacy. In a familiar pattern, when Holbrooke argued for slowing down the impending decisions on deployments until the “political terrain” was clear, O’Hanlon promptly launched into a discussion of troop numbers. According to the counter-insurgency doctrine codified by Petraeus and his colleagues, success in Afghanistan would require roughly 500,000 troops. Holbrooke asked if more troops would make a difference, since it was impossible to deploy the numbers supposedly needed.

Talbott and Podesta tried to refocus on the centrality of Pakistan and al Qaeda. Riedel observed that “the name of the game is Pakistan.” “If that is the goal,” Podesta asked, “does this strategy pursue it?” Riedel tried to explain the logic. Drone attacks were weakening al Qaeda in Pakistan. The United States had to convince Pakistan it was “serious” and would “go after” the Taliban as part of the “syndicate of cross-border organizations that host al Qaeda,” which he characterized as a “jihadist Frankenstein.” The fact that, as Riedel noted, “we don’t have good intelligence,” and have “lots of questions, especially about the Afghan Taliban” did not diminish his certainty that “hosting al Qaeda” was a Taliban core objective — indeed, the only Taliban objective he identified.

A “robust U.S. presence,” Talbott argued, was at the “heart of the political question” in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Keane remarked, “You can’t get them to change unless you convince them they cannot win.” That would require about 400,000 Afghan troops and police by 2013. Even if we and the military make an overwhelming case along these lines for more military resources, Holbrooke asked, can the U.S. political system bear it? “The American public,” Podesta said, “does not understand the linkage between the strategy and the mission.”

Holbrooke gave me the nod. “The American public is right,” I said. The strategy would not succeed and was not needed, because there was another way to stabilize and secure Afghanistan — through a political settlement. Keane argued that the goal didn’t have to be the “ultimate defeat” of the Taliban, but bringing the violence down to a level that the Afghan security forces could deal with on their own. Even that, however, Gelb emphasized, required Obama to articulate the goal and carry out his pledge to “fully resource” the war. I cautioned that it was not possible to “fully resource” an unachievable objective.

Holbrooke summarized his conclusions: The military should not be allowed to define the parameters of the president’s decision. It might not be possible to get the Taliban to break with al Qaeda, but it was worth a try. He noted a July 15 Clinton speech at the Council on Foreign Relations into which he had inserted conditions for the reintegration of individual Taliban members and said that the United States needed a “more sophisticated view of the enemy.”

After Brookings

Of course, during the policy review the military did succeed in framing the president’s decision as a choice between a significant troop increase for counter-insurgency and Vice President Joe Biden’s proposal for a small force focused on counter-terrorism. We in the special representative’s office prepared a proposal on what we decided to call “threat reduction,” including political negotiations with the Taliban leadership and regional diplomacy, for Clinton to present at a principals’ committee meeting on Oct. 13. We expected that then-National Security Adviser Jim Jones would ask Clinton to speak at the start of the meeting, but instead he turned to Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, for a military briefing and next to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for proposals on force requirements. When Jones finally called on the secretary of state, she said, “I agree with Bob Gates,” and never mentioned our proposals. When Holbrooke returned to the office he commented, “It is beyond my intellectual capabilities to describe these meetings.”

Obama reluctantly accepted the military’s recommendation of a troop increase, but he surprised the generals with an exit date the military considered premature. The political alternative did not even make it onto the agenda.

A Channel Opens

The following year we managed to respond to overtures the Taliban made through Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Qatar, and the talks began. After Holbrooke’s death, in a February 2011 speech at the Asia Society, Clinton called for a “diplomatic surge” to parallel the military one. The talks went on fitfully through 2011, frustrated by opposition at every turn. Finally, the United States acceded to President Hamid Karzai’s insistence, expressed at a conference in Bonn in December 2011, that the talks halt until the Afghan government was included.

After a visit to Kabul to consult with Karzai in January 2012, Marc Grossman passed that message to the Taliban representative in Doha.

Then, on the night of Mar. 12, U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 Afghan civilians in their beds in the Zhari district of Kandahar, and the Taliban called off the talks.

Within a week of the suspension, “senior Defense officials” leaked to the Wall Street Journal that the secretary of defense “refused to approve the transfer of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar,” which the Taliban had said was “necessary for peace talks to proceed.” The Defense Department was taking over the lead in negotiations, a “senior military official” claimed. According to the Journal article, the secretary’s refusal to meet the conditions for peace talks may have reflected “long-standing skepticism about prospects for Afghan-Taliban reconciliation, echoing doubts expressed by some military leaders who argue that more pressure is needed to sap the Taliban’s fighting spirit and to force the group to the negotiating table in a weaker position.”

All skepticisms may be equal, but in Washington some skepticisms are more equal than others. On Aug. 6, 2010, Petraeus had told Holbrooke that it was too early to negotiate. “He wants to do it only when the time is right, which he says will be next year,” Holbrooke recorded in his oral diary. “Frankly,” he said, “I just don’t believe him.” Petraeus got his chance to increase military pressure on the Taliban anyway.

By the time of the May 2012 NATO summit, Holbrooke’s skepticism had proved correct. 2011 had come and gone, and military leaders were still arguing — as they had to the Wall Street Journal — that the Taliban had to be weakened on the battlefield before talks could begin. That ever-elusive quest for military success could neither overcome the political weaknesses of the government the United States supported nor force the Taliban to make concessions they ruled out, such as negotiating directly with the Afghan government while U.S. troops had no plan to leave the country.

At the NATO Summit

On the morning of the summit’s first day, as Karzai swept by on his way to meet Obama, he briefly broke stride to shake my hand and ask, “Barney, how are your peace talks with the Taliban going?” He moved on without waiting for my answer. Karzai wanted to show he knew what I was doing behind his back — or what he believed I was doing. Instead he revealed that opponents of the talks were spinning him up with false reports. There were no talks.

After the two presidents met, we heard a summary of the discussion. Obama and Karzai ended by agreeing, in Obama’s formulation, to “double down on reconciliation in the next eighteen months.”

This was encouraging, but I had seen the obstacles to implementing the president’s intent. It would not be enough to treat reconciliation, as we had thus far, as one of multiple lines of action. I wanted to make the case directly to the secretary of state that the United States needed to focus: Instead of wasting lives, time, money, and political capital on a military strategy that could not succeed, it was time to make the search for a political settlement our strategic goal. I positioned myself outside a room where Clinton was meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

When Clinton came out of her meeting with Zardari, she asked me to walk with her so we could chat, as I had hoped she would. She knew me well enough to anticipate my concerns. As we stepped onto the escalator that took us back down to the main floor, she said she understood why I thought reconciliation was so important, but she was “skeptical” that it would work. I was ready with my response to that familiar word. Your skepticism is well founded, I said. Nothing is guaranteed to succeed. But you should be equally skeptical of the strategies proposed by the military.

I saw in her eyes the realization that she had not yet fully plumbed the depths of my cluelessness about the bureaucratic politics of national security. She fixed me with a condescending stare as she exclaimed, “Duh!” I believe that she intended the exclamation to express the second definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: “used derisively to indicate that something just stated is all too obvious or self-evident.” Clinton nonetheless invited me to share my views with her through her close aide, Jake Sullivan.

Years later her response is relevant again: “Duh!” well summarizes the response of most of those directly involved to the “revelations” in the Afghanistan papers. As Scott Smith, a veteran U.N. official in Afghanistan, put it, “The ‘Afghanistan Papers’ are not the ‘secret history’ the Post says they are. What struck me as I read them, was how drearily familiar it all was.” Officials did routinely claim success or progress, even inside the government, but they themselves were the main object of deception. A typical scenario was an October 2012 exchange at the annual ambassadors’ conference at Central Command’s forward headquarters in Qatar. I spoke on a panel together with James Cunningham, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. I gave my usual presentation about how what we were doing was unsustainable, and that there was no alternative to a political settlement to align the demands on the Afghan state with its capacities. Cunningham gave the embassy perspective: Outsiders were deceived by negative press reports, whereas those on the ground could see how much progress there was. During the break I crossed paths with the head of Central Command, and later secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis, who told me, “If I were that pessimistic, I’d kill myself!”

Bureaucratic self-deception, in which officials praise themselves for their activities, with little or no understanding of or concern for the effect of those activities on external reality, is not unique to the national security sphere. The problem is a set of embedded attitudes and biases toward war in the national security discourse in Washington, inside and outside of government. In his monumental work on problems of cognition, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a systematic cognitive bias in favor of coercion and sanctions and against negotiation and incentives. From my place in the cheap seats, it looked like Obama and Clinton each wanted the other to take the political risk of opposing the military option.

‘In Search of Monsters to Destroy’

When applying more force produces nothing but more death and destruction, Washington’s reflex is to up the level of force or relax the rules of engagement (“take the gloves off”), as President Donald Trump’s administration has done since introducing its “South Asia strategy” in August 2017. When you are in a hole, dig harder. After a year of digging harder, there was so little evidence of achievement that Trump reverted to his gut preference to get out of a war that couldn’t be won. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently then persuaded him that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad might be able to mitigate the fallout of a withdrawal through negotiations in the format demanded by the Taliban. Despite no evidence that violence softens Taliban positions, the administration has continued to escalate operations during the talks, leading to a spike in civilian casualties from coalition and government offensives. The Taliban have likewise escalated their attacks. This does not show, as “skeptics” say, that they do not want peace, but only that both sides are still at war.

The demonization of adversaries — going “in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams put it — makes coercion and violence the inevitable choice. The depiction of the Taliban as a component of a “terrorist syndicate” or “jihadist Frankenstein” — as Obama-era Afghanistan strategists did — is a perfect example of context-free demonization. Organizations and movements use terrorism in pursuit of political objectives that arise from historical contexts. The alternative to demonization is not relativism, but realism. Understanding the history and context that gave rise to the Taliban does not justify their behavior, but it helps to understand why they act as they do and what might impel them to change.

A month before the 2009 meeting at which Riedel depicted the Taliban as characters from a Gothic novel, a Saudi contact summoned me to Dubai to tell me that an emissary of Mullah Omar was waiting in Jeddah to talk to the United States. But the one-dimensional analysis that dominated the government’s Afghanistan thinking meant that Holbrooke hesitated even to report that contact, as it fit with no existing policy and contradicted the intelligence community consensus that the Taliban had no interest in negotiation.

Many people have told me as a matter of dogma that the Taliban have nothing to say worth hearing. But they apparently have enough to tell a veteran Republican diplomat like Khalilzad to keep him occupied well into a second year of negotiations. Over ten years after my trip to Dubai, as military efforts have repeatedly failed, negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban is a matter of broad consensus in Afghanistan — including among women, who suffered tremendously under Taliban rule and risk losing much if they return to power — and the United States seems to be on the verge of signing an agreement with them that will lead to negotiations among Afghans. Those negotiations may falter or fail, but if they do, it will be because of political conflicts that require effort to understand and overcome.

The cost of this bias for coercion and against negotiation is measured not just in poor national security decision-making but in human lives, most of them not American. Afghanistan has bled from wars not of its own making for over 40 years. An open-ended U.S. military presence without a settlement, or continuing a war with no clear objective or prospect of success, would waste resources and sacrifice innocent lives to fears and misconceptions. War is sometimes a necessity, but it can also become an addiction. It is time to break the habit.



Barnett R. Rubin is Director of the Afghanistan Regional Project and Associate Director at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. He is also a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He has taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior adviser to both the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan (2001-2002). His next book, Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2020.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Jaerett Engeseth)