Foreign Policy Blogs

Negotiating with the Taliban: What Do Americans Think?

The always provocative Ahmed Rashid has another worthwhile column in the Washington Post about the US and Karzai government negotiating with the Taliban that tangentially brought up an interesting issue: How would American voters react to American talks with the Taliban? This is obviously an important factor as there will inevitably be some form of negotiations between US officials and certain leaders of the Taliban-led insurgency and as Rashid proclaims, the Taliban leadership themselves desire direct talks with the US. American public support of such negotiations would be a substantive factor in allowing a US-led team to move in this direction. For instance, if most Americans viewed Al Qaeda and the Taliban as one and the same, it is doubtful that an American administration would be able to hold substantial public negotiations. Some time in the near or distant future Taliban and American leaders will find it in their interests to come to the negotiating table in a serious manner, will the American public be approving enough?

According to Rashid, the Obama administration is ‘divided’ over how American voters would react to Taliban negotiations. I scavenged the net and this database of polling data for signs of public opinion about the Taliban, but did not find much. The most relevant poll data I found was this ABC News/Washington Post  Poll, Dec. 10-13, 2009. N=1,003 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.5 (for all adults), which asked:

“How do you feel today about the Taliban having given support to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001? Would you say you’re extremely angry about that, very angry, somewhat angry, or not so angry?”


Extremely Angry -39%

Very Angry – 34%

Somewhat Angry -18%

Not So Angry -8%

Unsure – 2%

The question is far from ‘Would you approve of US negotiations with the Taliban?’ and it is somewhat loaded as it directly references 9/11 and Al Qaeda, but I still believe the poll’s results tell us, and more important, the Obama administration, something. First off, a strong 73% of Americans polled still show serious anger toward the Taliban for aiding Al Qaeda nearly a decade after 9/11, so I doubt that this is likely to ebb much in the future. In other words, the Taliban are largely looked at as a group that will forever be responsible for one of the greatest tragedies in American history. However, I believe this ‘anger’ is more than superseded by a popular desire to obtain success (aka a stable Afghan state that can control international terrorists to an acceptable degree) and get the heck out of Afghanistan.

Though poll numbers showing support for a strong US presence in Afghanistan have been on the rise since the announcement of the Obama/McChrystal surge strategy and are importantly above the 50% threshold, these numbers may be falling as Americans are looking for a way out, which many assume would involve negotiations with the Taliban-led insurgency. A new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found that support for the war has fallen 3 points down to 51% approval with 25% foreseeing a clear American victory, 26% seeing a negotiated settlement with the Taliban from a position of American strength, and only 9% seeing negotiations ending the war with a strong Taliban, and 4% predicting a total US defeat.

In my opinion, the American public will soon be ready to hear that our government, in partnership with the Karzai and the Afghan Parliament, is directly negotiating a political deal with elements of the Taliban. What I believe Americans will desire for this to happen is that A. it is from a position of strength (though by mid-2011 this could be less important) B. it is not with specific Taliban leadership that has/had direct contacts with Al Qaeda. In other words, the American public is willing to be flexible to a degree on this issue, giving the Obama administration room to bring about a pragmatic, workable conclusion to this conflict.