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By Mark Young Rational Games, Inc.

Just a few weeks ago, we helplessly watched the hasty and ignominious departure of American troops from Afghanistan, followed by the fairly immediate withdrawal of most of our other allies.  Operating on what I suspect was mostly intuition, President Biden chose first not to try to renegotiate the faulty deal struck with the Taliban by President Trump last year.  And as an immediate consequence of that, he also gave orders to physically withdraw from the country as soon as possible.  A momentous decision indeed, and one which could cost him dearly in the polls.  But was it wise?

Those of us in the negotiation pedagogy business have a range of opinions on this, all admittedly built on very incomplete information.  But following the decision-making structure of Bob Mnookin’s groundbreaking book Bargaining With the Devil  allow me to share a few thoughts. For Mnookin enjoins us to:

  1. Analyze the situation in terms of interests How likely is engaging with this opponent in good faith to lead to a sustainable win-win solution?   By all indications, the answer to this question was clearly negative.  Biden was bound by a shortsighted deal which did not include the Afghan government and contained no guarantee of a cease-fire anywhere but the United States.  He was dealing with a highly untrustworthy opponent with minimal scruples.  And he was all too aware of the “fixed cost” fallacy which kept the Americans in Vietnam far longer than necessary.  So measured this way, I think the decision was wise.

  1. Next contrast this conclusion with the one reached when also considering values as well as interests.  This is fascinating terrain indeed, as it has to do with the difference between advocacy and negotiation.  In his book, Mnookin explores this in his masterful sketch of two historical cases answering this question differently:  Churchill, who refused to negotiate with Hitler, and Mandela, who initiated negotiations with his captors.  Both triumphed in the end, under different circumstances.  But in any case, this “lens” recognizes that any rational analysis of interests is limited to consequential comparisons.  And surely that is not enough?  Are some things not non-negotiable?

For Biden and the Taliban, I think here the situation is less clear.  I would perhaps have counseled continuing back-channel communication, which is always fundamental.  And I can only assume that that has been organized, even after the withdrawal.

  1. Finally, we should always consider the longer-term consequences of the negotiate/do not negotiate decision.  What precedent is being set here?  Is it reversible?  How many will be affected as a result and can I as a negotiator assume responsibility for that?    All these things remain to be seen, but I feel sure they are on President Biden’s mind.  But he is gently leading us away from absolutist moralizing and towards pragmatic realism in an imperfect world.  That is a good start.

My call:  Biden made a courageous and largely wise decision.  Let’s see what happens next and how history judges it.

Comments welcome!


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