The Great Disrupter 

Why the United States can't talk to the Taliban

LOS ANGELES—Like all Afghans, Hamid Karzai knows history. Which is why he's talking to the neo-Taliban. The postmodern heirs to the Islamist government President George W. Bush deposed in 2001, the generation of madrassah graduates who replaced the mujahadeen vets of the anti-Soviet jihad are gaining strength. President Barack Obama, preparing for his 2012 reelection campaign, plans to start pulling out U.S. troops next year.

But Karzai's American overseers are against dialogue. "With regards to reconciliation," CIA director Leon Panetta told ABC's This Week, "unless [the neo-Taliban is] convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful."

Sen. John McCain said at a recent Senate hearing: "If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan ... he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor, which is what we all want."

Panetta's statement provides two insights to those who seek to understand U.S. foreign policy. The government knows it will lose in Afghanistan. Withdrawal has been announced. America's next step is a massively violent final offensive—in order to prove to the neo-Taliban that it could win if it really wanted to.

If by some miracle the anti-Afghan offensive were to work, the United States would never open talks with the neo-Taliban. Whenever the United States thinks it holds the upper hand, it refuses to engage. Only when something tips the balance—like North Korea's development of nuclear weapons—is it willing to chat.

More broadly and interestingly, the Panetta Doctrine helps us resolve the big mystery of U.S. actions abroad after 1945.

The United States hasn't won a war since World War II. And it doesn't seem to want to. When the United States invades, it often fails to occupy, much less annex. When it occupies, it does so with fewer soldiers than necessary to control its newly acquired territory.

The United States has been described as an "empire without empire." It's more accurate to call it the Great Disrupter. It's fairly safe to conclude that primary U.S. foreign policy objective is to disrupt potential emerging regional rivals. Iran, for example, is the nation that should logically dominate the Middle East politically and economically. The United States uses sanctions to prevent Iran's rise to regional superpower.

From a geopolitical standpoint, U.S. policymakers are far more concerned about India's potential role as the leader of South Asia than the threat that North Korea will nuke Seattle. Which is why the Bush administration sent billions of dollars in military hardware and cash subsidies to the violently anti-Indian government of General Pervez Musharraf after 9/11.

Naturally, we can't talk to the neo-Taliban. (Nor can we let Karzai do so.) An Afghanistan that resumes its 1996-to-2001 role as the global capital of Islamist government and Sharia law could represent a new kind of influence--simultaneously religious, political and military--that the United States fears as much as Iran, India or any other country big enough to suck away American market share.

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