Afghanistan: It's a game of chicken, and the U.S. doesn't seem to know the rules.

There has been some talk recently about a possible dialog between Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and the Afghan government and/or the Americans. This has generally been welcomed, though most seem to realize that this is not the beginning of real peace negotiations. The problem is: the beginning of peace negotiations is not going to begin anytime soon, and never on U.S. terms. The reason is simple: Afghanistan is a game of chicken. The Taliban understand this. The U.S., it seems, does not.

For those unfamiliar with chicken, it's a fantastically (and idiotically) macho game wherein two men (usually, but let's not be sexist, there are plenty of idiot women out there, too) get in cars and drive at each other full throttle. The first one to swerve loses. Of course, if neither swerves, both lose a lot more than the game: they lose their lives. The stakes are high for two individuals in the game of chicken. In the Afghan version, they are high for millions of individuals.

There are a couple strategies for winning the game of chicken. One is to limit your options by, say, removing your steering wheel and letting the other side know you cannot swerve. This will simplify the game for them: lose the game or lose your life. Simple equation.

The other is to appear to be crazy. If the other side really believes you would rather die than lose the game, they will swerve first.

The Taliban have almost no reason to agree to a settlement on anything other than their own terms. The reason? The U.S. has played the game using the opposite of the second strategy above: everyone knows the U.S. will not stay there forever, no matter the cost. Obama wishes to start pulling out next year. The Taliban know this. The Taliban on the other hand, while not crazy (fanatic, perhaps, but not crazy), can much more convincingly assert that they will fight to the bitter end, regardless of the cost.

The choices here, then, are also simplified: the Taliban can fight for another year, maybe two, or they can just give up now. That's it -- they must only hold out a year. The U.S., on the other hand, can fight until it's bled dry, or it can cut its losses and run. The winner is predetermined here because the U.S. has shown all of its cards (and yes, I'm aware of the mixed metaphor with poker, just go with it).

If you were a Taliban leader, when would you chose to negotiate a peace agreement? "How about never, is never good for you?" seems a likely response.


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