A Failure to Negotiate: How the US Lost Its War in Afghanistan

How is it that the US lost its war with Afghanistan? This will be debated for years. The question is part of a larger question: how is it that this greatest of all superpowers has not gained clear victory in any major war since 1945?  In addition to this general question there are factors that apply only to the Afghan war. One peculiarity is how that war began.

In its October 3, 2001 edition, the Chicago Tribune declared, “Afghanistan’s Taliban government again refused to turn over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden .  . .” Most US newspapers were saying the same, and probably most Americans today believe that’s what happened: the US demanded bin Laden’s extradition, the Taliban refused and would not negotiate, so the US had every right to invade. That makes a smooth story. But it’s not what happened.

What happened is that Afghanistan’s Taliban government agreed in principle to the detention and extradition of bin Laden, and called for negotiations.  But they said that to extradite him they would need to be shown evidence that he was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack. This offer was reported in many, though not all, news outlets. For example:

+  ”Osama will not be extradited without evidence.” (The Hindu [India], Sept. 13, 2001).

+ ”…our position on this is that if America has proof , we are ready for the trial of Osama bin Laden in light of the evidence.”(CBS News, September 23, 2001).

+ ”If America is not satisfied with our trial of Osama, we are also ready to find another Islamic way of trying him.” (The Guardian, October 5, 2001).

+ “Detention is not a problem.  If someone comes and gives the allegation against him, we would detain him. But if we detain him without allegations, he will say to us, ‘Where is America?’” (Irish Examiner, October 7, 2001. This is the day America’s invasion of Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom”, was launched).

These and similar statements were made repeatedly to news reporters both by Taliban government officials in Kabul and by Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. US President George W. Bush’s response was adamant: “There are no negotiations”.  (Court TV. [UK] October 2, 2001) “When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations.”   “We know he’s guilty.” (New York Times. October 14, 2001) Refusing even to attempt negotiating an international dispute is a clear violation of the United Nations Charter Article 33.

Saying “the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden” definitely rounds out the story. But demanding evidence is not refusing an extradition request. It’s the routine response: step 2 in any extradition procedure. No country will extradite a suspect without seeing evidence, simply on the request of another government.  For example if a country wants extradition of a suspect from the US it must send a representative who will, under oath, present the evidence before a judge, after which the judge will hear the suspect’s defense.  (U.S. Code title 18, section 3184) That’s how it’s done.

In saying “show us the evidence,” Zaeef and the others were in effect committing their government to look at the evidence, and to be persuaded by it if it was persuasive.  He was offering to negotiate, and stating his government’s initial negotiating position.

Certainly we may wonder whether they were sincere. This is also not unusual.  Diplomats regularly make offers they have little intention of keeping.  Insincere, or partly sincere, offers are part of the culture of international diplomacy.  Even if insincerely spoken they have the effect of public promises.  They can put real pressure on the ones who spoke them, and can form a basis for criticizing the speaker’s government if they are violated.  Zaeed’s request to see the evidence amounted to an offer to launch the Taliban on a diplomatic path significantly different from what they had been following.

We cannot know how it might have turned out.  While the statements quoted above are factual (there is no reason to doubt that the Taliban officials said what they were quoted as saying) Bush’s refusal to negotiate leaves us no alternative but to make counterfactual speculations as to what they might have led to had he not refused. Negotiations might have only delayed the beginning of the war.  But they also might have led to bin Laden’s trial.  They might have launched the Taliban on a path towards becoming a more responsible international actor. They might have led to normalization of relations without a twenty-year war.

What might have happened we will never know; what did happen we know.  Whoever seeks to analyze this miserable war must confront these simple facts.  The Taliban offered to negotiate, and to detain, try, and/or extradite bin Laden if they were shown the evidence. The US refused, invaded, had Zaeed arrested and incarcerated in the Guantanamo Bay Prison – and then lost the war in what can only be called a rout.