What's Our End Game for Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen
I'm still trying to make heads or tails of Leon Panetta's interview yesterday on " This Week" and the Administration's consistent downplaying of the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban. Consider these quotes:
First off, it's worth noting that "that society" is their society - and as the Army's public opinion polling has shown there is, in southern Afghanistan, widespread sympathy with the Taliban. That the CIA Director is making this statement the same day that word comes from al Jazeera that Hamid Karzai has met with Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani - and after repeated news stories about talks between Karzai and Taliban - is even more distressing. What possible rationale is there for the US to throw cold water on political negotiations that would not only end the war sooner, but are acceptable to the Afghan leadership . . . you know the people who actually have to live in Afghanistan? Don't we want a political end to this conflict rather than more years of war toward reaching an uncertain goal?
“We’ve seen no evidence of that and, very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful.”
“We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaida, where they would really try to become part of that society.”
The continued reluctance of the Obama Administration to embrace the possibility of political reconciliation with the Taliban just makes no sense to me. How hard would it be for US leaders to publicly float the idea that we can accept a political role for the Taliban as long as they don't allow any al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan? After all, isn't that all we really care about from a narrow US national interest perspective?
Second, is Panetta's even more bizarre statement that reconciliation with the Taliban is not possible "unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated." Well then I guess reconciliation is never going to be achieved because we're not going to win in Afghanistan and we're not going to defeat the Taliban - something that the Taliban and even President Karzai seem to understand quite well. Would Karzai even be negotiating with Taliban leaders if he believed that the US is going to "win" in Afghanistan? Moreover, it seems to me that Panetta's statement today reflects are far more ambitious strategy in Afghanistan than what has been described by President Obama who speaks more clearly of reversing the Taliban's momentum rather than defeating them.
That brings us to the third problem; the notion that reconciliation is not possible unless the Taliban surrender their arms and denounce al Qaeda. Does anyone actually think that Taliban surrendering their arms is a realistic end game for this conflict? And what about al Qaeda? In the same interview, Panetta also said that al Qaeda is "probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan."
This begs the question, if al Qaeda is so weak and its influence so diminished - wouldn't this actually be a good time to make a deal with the Taliban? After all the preeminent US goal in Afghanistan is not to defeat the Taliban, it's to defeat al Qaeda. It seems as though the best time to separate the two groups would be when AQ is the weakest and the Taliban have the least to gain by being allied with them. Is the Taliban really going to go for the mat that not only is a hollow shell of itself, but actually creates more not less problems for them? There seems to be a view in the Administration that the Taliban and al Qaeda are inextricably linked, but this seems to reflect a real lack of imagination on the part of US policymakers. Is it really so hard to imagine a deal with the Taliban that involves them ending support for al Qaeda in Afghanistan?
Panetta's interview only further confuses the issue of what the US end game for Afghanistan might actually look like. Rhetorically, the Administration talks on the one hand about minimal goals of defeating AQ, preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups and getting out of the country beginning in 18 months . . . and then on the other hand, places obstacles in front of any sort of political negotiations with the Taliban and pooh-poohs the notion that reconciliation can occur without deeper US military involvement in the conflict.
It really does beg the question; what are we willing to accept as an end state in Afghanistan and do we have any plan to get there? Listening to US policymakers in recent days it seems that neither question has been satisfactorily addressed or answered.