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Former Acting CIA Director McLaughlin On The Possibility Of A U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal


So what if the Taliban had come to Camp David? For more insight on that image and the breakdown of a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, we reached out to John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA. He wrote about Afghanistan in a column today for the online platform The Cipher Brief. I asked him if the deal - as we understood it to be taking shape - was, in principle, a good one.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Here's the problem. We're not used to ending wars this way. I know how it won't end. It won't end with some surrender on a battleship or in a conference room. I know how it shouldn't end. It shouldn't end with the kind of chaotic departure we had from Vietnam back in 1975, leaving our allies stranded and facing reprimands. It shouldn't end that way, so it's got to be somewhere in-between.

I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs the other day said something to the effect that the only way to end this war is through some sort of political agreement between an Afghan government and the Taliban. And that's the trick, how to find that. But I don't think anyone should assume that this is going to be a smooth aftermath if there is an agreement.

KELLY: You write, the best-case scenario is that the aftermath will be messy but short of disasters.

MCLAUGHLIN: Right. And I say that with more hope than confidence.

KELLY: Why - because experience informs you that that it may well be messier?

MCLAUGHLIN: Because we don't yet know everything we need to know about the Taliban. In some ways, they may have changed. There are some reports to that effect, as I note in this article. On the other hand, for a group that is committed to Sharia law, to commit itself to working in a democratic system kind of runs against everything they stand for. And so one has to be skeptical. It's a classic trust-but-verify situation.

The problem is if we verify that they're complying, well, so to the good - if we verify that they're not, we're not going to have a big troop surge back into Afghanistan. I just don't see that happening. So it's important to get the deal as close to right as possible because we're going to live with what we agree to.

KELLY: I suppose that's one of the fundamental questions here. Whatever the Taliban agrees to in a deal, what enforcement mechanism will the U.S. have to hold them to it, if the whole point for the U.S. is to start bringing troops home?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, enforcement will be difficult in any event. The bigger worry here, I think, is that the Taliban would try to turn back the clock to the day when, for example, women were not allowed to go to school. One of the huge advances in Afghanistan is that, in a country of 35, 36 million people, about 9 million kids go to school, and a third of them are girls. That's a big change.

KELLY: As you note in your piece, Afghan women might also have quite a lot of trouble with them breaking that deal. You note a third of the Afghan Parliament is now women.

MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. I think the Taliban here would not face a compliant, passive female populace. Women have held important positions in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Now, that said, if the Taliban have the guns, if the democratic forces in Afghanistan collapse, you have a situation where the guns may rule. Let's hope not.

KELLY: John McLaughlin, you were in senior leadership positions at the CIA on 9/11 and in the years that followed. If I had told you back then that the president of the United States had invited the Taliban to Camp David, what would you have said?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we would have all fallen back in horror. And that's the emotion you have today when you hear about it all these years later. That said, the important thing is, has a meeting like that actually been prepared so that it's more than a photo op or more than an improvisational opportunity for an impulsive president? Which is what it looked like. You know, at the end of the day, the only way to end a war is to either defeat the enemy or make peace with it. And the trickier part is making peace with it.

KELLY: That's former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin. He is now at Johns Hopkins University. John McLaughlin, thanks.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.