Rare is the occasion when you can invoke Munich without embarrassment. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that although the Munich Agreement was signed only 75 years ago this month, it has nevertheless been the most overused analogy in human history. The problems with deploying it to make an argument about current events are numerous. A few of them:
1. Very few political movements are as bad as Nazism.
2. Just because you are dealing with bad people doesn't mean military force is the answer.
3. When the analogy is used today, it is generally to condemn someone for being spineless. But the Neville Chamberlain's government (and its admirers in the British ruling class) that appeased Hitler in the 1930s were not cartoonishly weak-kneed men cowering before Nazi evil. They were calculating actors, some of whom had fascist sympathies, others of whom who were scared of a second World War, and the rest of whom were less clever than they thought they were.
Given these constraints, the situation playing itself out between Pakistan's government and the Taliban really does seem surprisingly evocative of 75 years ago. You have an aggressively fanatical organization whose war against Pakistan's state and people has caused tens of thousands of deaths. It's true that the country's military and intelligence services nurtured the Taliban prior to 9/11, and since that time have been playing a so-called "double game:" lapping up American money as part of the war on terror while still not-so-subtly giving aid to Taliban elements and their ideological cousins fighting against India.
However, in recent weeks the country's military has, at least rhetorically, shifted towards acknowledging the scale of the problem. The "blowback" is claiming the lives of military men (including a senior general this week), and the military's leader (and thus the most powerful man in the country), Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has given several powerful speeches about the necessity of taking on militants. (It's unclear how much, if at all, the army is reconsidering its utilization of these groups as proxies).
But now the newly elected civilian government, which is led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is calling for talks with extremists as a way of reaching some sort of a peace deal. Ever since the former cricketer Imran Khan became a big player in Pakistani politics, there has been tremendous pressure to support his proposal for negotiation with the Taliban. The problem is: how do you negotiate with maniacs?
A couple of days ago, one of the country's best newspapers, The Express Tribune, ran a remarkable article titled , 'Taliban Dictate Terms of Talks.' Here is how the piece began:
It appears the Taliban want to exploit the government’s quest for peace as they seek maximum concessions ahead of any peace negotiations.The outlawed Tehreek-eTaliban Pakistan (TTP) – which claimed responsibility for Sunday’s rare high-ranking military casualties – said that it would not negotiate with the government unless two preconditions were met. "First, army troops should pull out from the entire tribal area. And second, our prisoners should be released," TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told reporters by phone from an undisclosed location. "We cannot move forward unless the government accepts these two demands… it must take steps which can develop an atmosphere of trust and can remove the doubts and suspicion," Shahid said. "We are not going to waste precious time over useless negotiations, like those held in the past."
The Taliban seems to think it controls certain areas of Pakistan, and that the state has no right to enforce its writ in these places. Outrageous, huh? And what has the response been to both these demands, and similar ones over the past several months? Well, an "All Parties Conference" was recently held during which the various civilian parties decided that they had had enough of the Taliban's...no, just kidding. They decided that now was the time for more negotiation.
Here is where the Munich analogy comes in handy. For starters, these Taliban groups are really, really bad. They kill civilians with abandon, they seem to have an, er, surly attitude towards the rights of women, and they want to turn Pakistan into another Afghanistan. On the second point of comparison listed above: The Pakistani state has coddled these groups, tried to differentiate between "good" and "bad" Taliban, kept up their double game, and pleaded for peace; none of it has worked. Deals have been struck...and they have all ended with Taliban violence. (Speaking of analogies, in this case an unintentionally made one: The Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, in an interview several years ago, said force was not the answer. As he put it, calling for war would be like "demanding that Washington fight Texas." I hate to break it to him about a war Washington once had to wage...)
And that leaves the motives of Pakistan's leaders. Here Munich is particularly apt. First, you have the politicians with actual affection for the Taliban. Prime Minister Sharif's party is religiously conservative and, from its base in the state of Punjab, has negotiated deals with extremists for years. Imran Khan, meanwhile, views Talibs as, essentially, misunderstood men who have been put upon and radicalized by The Treaty of Versailles American drone strikes. Then there are those politicians who are legitimately scared of being killed by the Taliban. This may not excuse appeasement, but like the desire to avoid another war, it is understandable enough. (Just imagine campaigning in Taliban country for an election that the Taliban has not sanctioned). And finally, there are the leaders (such as Sharif and Khan) who probably think they are clever enough to play this game. For their sakes, they better be correct. For Pakistan's sake (and Afghanistan's, and India's, and America's), let's hope they have a change of heart.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.