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March 19, 2012

Give Peace A Chance . . . in Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Opsyroc059p1Reading Steve Coll's latest take on the situation in Afghanistan has left me scratching my head - in particular this paragraph of recommendations:

Focussing directly and creatively on Afghan constitutional politics and the civil society necessary to bolster a successful transition (the parliament is also supposed to be up for election) might be more useful, in terms of promoting unity and cohesion among Afghan groupings, than the provocative talks with Taliban leaders have so far been. Currently, American political strategy is heavily located in these talks. They are valuable, should be continued, and might bear fruit, but they haven’t produced much so far. Their relevance on the road to 2014 and beyond is uncertain.

There's a couple things to unpack here. First is the notion that focusing on Afghan politics and civil society is a winning short-term strategy. For three years the US has been completely unable to bend the Karzai government to its will; relations between the US and Afghan government are at an all-time low (and that is saying something) and our leverage with Karzai, as US troops begin to head toward the exits, could not be lower. What makes Coll think that now is the time for focusing on constitutional politics? Isn't that something that we should have thinking about three years ago - and not now as the mission is winding down?

Moreover, why would the US want to open up the can of worms that is governance and constitutional reform when the far more important deliberation with the Karzai government should be over the strategic partnership agreement (SPA)? This makes little sense politically - and is an effort that appears destined to fail.

But the larger issue here is why is Coll so down on peace talks? He claims they haven't achieved much so far, which on one level is true in that a breakthrough has not occurred. But on another, far more important level, ignore the many signs of interest in negotiations emanating from the Taliban. These include Mullah Omar’s Eid statement in August 2011 acknowledging contacts with the United States; the exploratory talks that have already begun between the United States and Taliban representatives; the establishment of a liaison office in Qatar and the recent decision to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

What one might glean from these examples is that the Taliban leadership has publicly recognized the legitimacy of a political settlement. At this point it should be obvious that the US has a potential partner with which to negotiate. And yet up to this point the US political strategy in Afghanistan has been almost completely subsumed by the military's tactical objectives.

None of this means of course that such talks will succeed - but the idea expressed here by Coll and repeated elsewhere by foreign policy pundits from all sides of the political spectrum that they are of little relevance -- is both striking and clearly wrong. Indeed, considering all the indications of interest from the Taliban in talks I'm baffled by the argument that they haven't achieved much or don't show promise.

But what is even more surprising is Coll's notion that "their relevance on the road to 2014 and beyond is uncertain." Huh? How could the potential for political reconciliation be considered even slightly irrelevant to what happens after 2014 and US troops have left the country. Isn't the best case scenario for Afghanistan's future and stability in the region a political settlement? If anything their relevance is undeniable. And even if one is unconvinced they will succeed how would Coll or anyone else justify not moving heaven or earth to work toward the realization of a political settlement? If eve there was a time to be taking a chance for peace it WOULD BE THIS MOMENT.

Yet, Coll's sentiments are hardly unusual - they are something of conventional wisdom in the Afghan pundit community.

Indeed, if one looks at the coverage of the fallout from the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a lone staff sergeant it dealt overwhelmingly with the issue of the troop withdrawals and almost none on the need to jump start political negotiations. I get on some level that the national security community tends to think, overwhelmingly, in terms of military solutions. But the extent to which a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is treated as a sideshow of US strategy is one of the more bizarre elements of how we talk about the war in Afghanistan.

There is no way to kill ourselves out of the war in Afghanistan. This is one point that seemingly everyone agrees on. So if that's the case why are people so reluctant to talk more openly about finding a political resolution to the war in Afghanistan?


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