Soldier's Reaction: If the Taliban Are Willing to Talk, Perhaps We Should, Too

A Veteran Reflects on His Time at War as it Draws to a Close

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Soldier's Reaction: If the Taliban Are Willing to Talk, Perhaps We Should, Too

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Jonathan Raab, second from left, with ANP and Army soldiers

COMMENTARY | With the Taliban now open to direct talks with the U.S., I've been reflecting on my own experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan.

I deployed as an infantryman with the Army in 2007 and 2008. During one week-long stretch in the summer, our mission was to conduct patrols along the major roads in Logar Province. We searched for illegal weapons and fleeing Taliban fighters.

The operation came in response to an ambush of U.S. Army personnel. The Taliban had successfully defeated a small U.S. force, stealing weapons, equipment, and even the bodies of two soldiers.

For more than a week straight, we operated with very little sleep, and few opportunities to shower or eat a hot meal. We drove our Humvees up and down highways and lonely dirt roads, searching vehicles, looking for the enemy, and hoping we might be able to get retribution for the dead Americans.

The Taliban were then -- as they are now -- resourceful, cunning, and often invisible.

Our forces would clear a village -- and the Taliban would disappear into the population. The Army might pronounce a village or route "clear" -- but we all knew this wasn't the case. The Taliban simply sat back and watched us exhaust ourselves by spending time, fuel, and manpower.

Our Army is very good at providing a show of force -- like we did that summer in Logar Province -- but we have been unwilling to sustain a presence in the villages and the countryside. During the day, we owned the terrain within reach of our weapons. At night, the Taliban would return.

Sometimes, who the Taliban were was up for debate. One village elder once told my commanding officer, "There are good Taliban, and bad Taliban. We want to get rid of the bad Taliban." A farmer who helps dig a hole for an IED to help feed his family is not a hardcore jihadist; a young boy forced to carry an AK-47 at night probably isn't mainline Taliban, either.

Complicating the fight was the corruption of the Afghan National Police. Many of them were stealing equipment, fuel, food, and weapons -- sometimes selling items directly to the Taliban. When I would take part in foot patrols through many villages, the Afghan citizens would tell me that the police were more corrupt and dangerous than the Taliban.

Our commanders are content to sit on large, overprotected bases, and not pursue the enemy in a meaningful way. Since we are not willing to commit to win the war, perhaps it's better that we negotiate.

The Taliban recognize that we are leaving Afghanistan, and for all of our technology and firepower, we remain unable to gain the trust of the common people.

In the summer of 2008, the average Afghan citizen saw our big operation through Logar Province as a show of force that ultimately proved fruitless. In the summer of 2013, I suspect the average Afghan -- and the Taliban themselves -- sees our military might as irrelevant.

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