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Eat Your Spinach: Time for Peace Talks in Afghanistan

In the last week the New York Times and Inter Press Service have reported that the Obama Administration is having an internal debate on whether to supports talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, including Mullah Muhammad Omar, as a means of ending the war in Afghanistan. Senior officials like Vice President Biden are said to be more open to reaching out because they believe it will help shorten the war.

Wouldn't it be remarkable if this remained merely an "internal debate" within the Obama Administration? Wouldn't you expect that the part of public opinion that wants the war to end would try to intervene in this debate on behalf of talks in order to end the war?

As an administration official told the New York Times,

"Today, people agree that part of the solution for Afghanistan is going to include an accommodation with the Taliban, even above low- and middle-level fighters."

And in fact, US and British officials have been saying for months that the "endgame" in Afghanistan includes a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban.

Now, suppose you tell Mom that you want to have ice cream. And Mom says, you can have ice cream when you've eaten your spinach. Wouldn't you eat your spinach? If you don't eat your spinach now, you didn't want ice cream very badly.

So if U.S. and British officials say the endgame includes a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, and you figure, extrapolating from the last five thousand years of human history, that a negotiated political settlement typically does not just drop down from the sky, but in fact is generally preceded by political negotiations, and you want to end the war as soon as possible, wouldn't you be clamoring for political negotiations to start as soon as possible? Because the longer political negotiations are delayed, the longer the war will last. If you don't support political negotiations now, you don't want to end the war very badly.

If you consider peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban "distasteful," consider this: every month that the war continues, every month that U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, is another month in which U.S. soldiers will die horrible deaths, be horribly maimed, and be horribly scarred psychologically, perhaps for life. It's also another month in which the U.S. military is likely to "accidentally" kill Afghan government soldiers (such episodes "are not uncommon," the New York Times notes) and kill Afghan civilians, as they have done at least twice in the last week, according to the reporting in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

I put the word "accidentally" in quotation marks, not of course because I believe that the U.S. military is killing Afghan soldiers and Afghan civilians "on purpose," but because when you repeatedly take an action (continuing the war) that leads to a predictable result (killing Afghan government soldiers and civilians) you lose the exoneration otherwise conferred by the word "accidentally."

Is this not also "distasteful"? Is killing innocent people not more "distasteful" than peace talks?

Gareth Porter, writing for Inter Press Service, reports that an official of the Western military coalition says there has been a debate among U.S. officials about "the terms on which the Taliban will become part of the political fabric." The debate is not on whether the Taliban movement will be participating in the Afghan political system, Porter reports, but on whether or not the administration could accept the participation of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the political future of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban has insisted in published statements that it will not participate in peace talks that would not result in the withdrawal of foreign troops, Porter notes. That raises the question of whether the administration would be willing to discuss the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as part of a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

The Obama Administration has stated publicly that it has no long-term interest in maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Therefore, should not the U.S. be willing to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of a negotiated settlement? We're leaving anyway, according to U.S. officials - what's holding us back from agreeing, as part of a negotiation, to do what we plan to do anyway?

U.S. officials have said that the war is all about the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. When the Afghan Taliban breaks with al Qaeda the war is over, say these officials. Some say that Mullah Omar is ready to break with al Qaeda, including the Pakistani intelligence officer who trained him; while Osama bin Laden's son Omar says Al Qaeda and the Taliban are only "allies of convenience." Why wouldn't we put these propositions to the test through negotiations?

If you think, for the sake of peace, the United States should be willing to agree to do on a timetable that which it claims it intends to do anyway, tell President Obama.

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