At the most recent Fox debate Romney distanced himself from one of his former key foreign policy advisors, Mitchell Reiss, by denying that the Taliban should have a stake in peace negotiations in Afghanistan. “We should not negotiate with the Taliban,” he said, “we should defeat the Taliban.” Since the Afghan security forces would be unlikely to defeat them on their own, Romney is effectively endorsing the long-term deployment of troops in Afghanistan to defeat an enemy that is (or some of its factions are, at least) seeking a peace settlement.
For what it’s worth, the Karzai government supports the Taliban office’s opening in Qatar, and recognizes that any settlement will have to include them. On his blog at Foreign Policy, Reiss offered a rational, qualified endorsement of the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban:
The United States still needs to determine: (1) whether the Taliban officials sitting across the negotiating table represent themselves, a small faction, or a broader constituency, (2) whether they have the authority to impose any agreement on the mujahedeen in the field, and (3) whether they have a genuine interest in a permanent halt to the conflict on terms that are agreeable to the United States and its Afghan partner (e.g., renouncing ties to al Qaeda, laying down their weapons and supporting the Afghan constitution).
Ben Smith points to Romney’s remarks and his recent endorsement by John Bolton as evidence of Romney’s shift from the “GOP’s Condoleezza Rice wing to its Dick Cheney wing.” He continues:
… people familiar with Romney’s circle of foreign policy advisers said [Reiss] has for months been a target from other, more conservative advisers — from Senor to allies of Bolton — who saw him as a bit soft on key issues of national defense.
It was, though, an attack from the left that led to Reiss’s quiet demotion from first among equals in 2008 to the status of one of many advisers this time: Salon reported that he had spoken out in support of the MEK, an anti-regime Iranian group viewed with suspicion by many but seen by some on the right as a valuable ally against Tehran. And while some of Romney’s other advisers might share his sympathies, his public speaking on behalf of the group represented an unacceptable breach of discipline for Romney’s tight inner circle.
First of all, it speaks volumes about the neoconservative policy elite that a person willing to work with a Islamist-collectivist cult known to have killed Americans for the purpose of destabilizing a foreign government is found to be “a bit soft.”
Significantly, back-benching Reiss isn’t a repudiation of the idea of U.S. cooperating with the MEK; at least two other advisors have advocated de-listing the group though Reiss has been the most vocal. Romney himself may have obliquely referred to the group at a debate appearance on November 12th when he said the United States should begin “working with” and “support[ing] insurgents within the country.” The presidential frontrunner has yet to explain which insurgents he’s talking about but there aren’t that many Iranian insurgent groups and the connection seems undeniable. So, to clarify, Romney is against negotiating with a quasi-governmental entity to end a 10-year war but in favor of working with terrorists to start a new one.