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Can the US Negotiate Peace in Afghanistan?

A major contribution of the "inside experts" Afghanistan Study Group report (read here ; send to your reps in Congress here), released last week to spur Washington debate towards de-escalating the war at the next fork in the road is that its very first recommendation is this:

1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.

Predictably, there appear to have been two principal objections so far to this proposal:

1. Oh my God. How dare you suggest that the U.S. should support a peace deal with the Afghan insurgency. You must be some kind of amoral monster.

2. Ho hum. Nothing new here. Everyone already knows this. Why do you tax our patience by stating the obvious as if it were a profound revelation? This is already Administration policy. Move along, nothing to see here.

It should go without saying that these two objections are, as a matter of logic, mutually exclusive. A real peace process leading to a new political dispensation in Afghanistan that ends the civil war could be the worst idea in human history, or it could be a commonplace that everyone already knows and is already Administration policy. But it cannot be both.

Anyone has been following this issue closely in the mainstream U.S. print media knows that while the first objection has little to do with life as we know it on Planet Earth, the second objection has, on the face of it, significant merit. It is a commonplace among knowledgeable people - including senior U.S. government officials, such as the commander of our military forces in Afghanistan - that the expected U.S. endgame in Afghanistan is not a military victory by U.S. forces, but a new political dispensation in Afghanistan that includes most of those now supporting the insurgency. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that it is U.S. policy to support a political settlement, including with leaders of the insurgency.

Indeed, if someone were to claim that "power sharing" in Afghanistan is a new idea, one could point to the October 2006 statement of then - Senate Majority Leader Republican Bill Frist that "people who call themselves Taliban" should be brought into the Afghan government.

Therefore, if someone nominates the Afghanistan Study Group for a brilliancy prize based on intellectual innovation for making this recommendation, I promise to be the first to object.

But the fact that this is a commonplace among knowledgeable people and the fact that this is already Administration policy - at least at the level of rhetoric - do not mean that insisting that the U.S. must aggressively promote national political reconciliation in Afghanistan is an irrelevant activity. On the contrary, making national political reconciliation the central political goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, around which all other policy is organized, as opposed to the mere rhetorical salute that exists today, is the central U.S. policy change needed to end the war and bring the troops home.

The fact that something is official policy at the level of rhetoric tells you nothing about what the U.S. government is actually doing to implement that policy. It tells you nothing about where implementing that policy stands in the list of priorities. It tells you nothing about what kind of trade-offs are being made between implementing that policy and implementing other policies.

How seriously the U.S. is pursuing national political reconciliation in Afghanistan is something that observers outside the government cannot completely ascertain directly. If US officials were in regular communication with Mullah Omar, are we sure that we would we know it? Recall that during the Madrid peace talks in 1991, while the Israeli delegation made a big show of "we will never negotiate with the PLO, we're just talking with some Palestinian leaders from the West Bank" and the Palestinian leaders they were talking to were saying, "We are the PLO, we don't go to the bathroom without permission from Tunis," the Israeli government was actually negotiating a deal with the PLO in Oslo.

But by watching policies that are implemented, we can form reasonable judgments about how vigorously a policy is being pursued, and where it stands in the list of priorities. Of each policy choice implemented, we can ask: what does this policy choice tell us about the government's priorities?

The key policy choices made by the Obama Administration in Afghanistan - with the important exception of the announcement of the July 2011 date to begin drawing down the current military escalation - have indicated that promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan has not been high on the priority list.

In particular, if you go back to the publicized debate inside the Administration over the current military escalation, you'll find that one of the principal arguments made by Administration critics of the then-proposed military escalation was this: military escalation is likely to make national political reconciliation in Afghanistan more difficult. The fact that military escalation was chosen anyway indicates that promoting national political reconciliation was not a high priority. And, it seems clear that the subsequent history has borne out the critics: national political reconciliation in Afghanistan is probably more difficult today than it would have been a year ago, before the U.S. military escalation.

Last's year's military escalation decision is an accomplished fact. But we can learn from the experience, and work to put national political reconciliation in Afghanistan at the top of the U.S. priority list.

What currently feasible - they could be done this week - Administration policies would be consistent with making national political reconciliation a priority? Here are three.

1. The Obama Administration could signal its willingness to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan - similar to the agreement we now have with Iraq - as part of a peace deal.

There are many ways to signal. It doesn't have to be a formal announcement. A "senior Administration official" could tell a reporter that the Obama Administration is considering this. The British could say it, and the Obama Administration could ostentatiously say nothing. A senior Democratic Senator perceived to be close to the Administration on foreign policy could say it, and the Obama Administration could ostentatiously say nothing.

Obviously, a key objective of the insurgency is to drive foreign forces out of the country. By sending this signal, the Obama Administration would be saying, "You want us out? Fine. Negotiate with us, and we will leave faster."

Note that "the US should establish a timetable for military withdrawal" is already the position of the majority of Americans and 60% of the House Democratic Caucus. So by signaling its willingness to establish a timetable for full military withdrawal as part of a peace deal, the Obama Administration would simply be suggesting its willingness to agree as part of a negotiation to do that which a majority of Americans already want the U.S. to do even if there is no negotiation. 2. The Obama Administration could signal that it is willing to end "night raids" in Afghanistan if serious negotiations commence. Night raids - which indiscriminately kill civilians and violate the sanctity of the Afghan home - are arguably the policy of the U.S. military occupation most hated by Afghan public opinion and the Afghan government, which has long called for them to end, so offering to end them would be a powerful incentive to promote talks.

3. The Obama Administration could signal that it is willing to "downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan" - as called for by the Afghanistan Study Group - to promote negotiations.

It's often stated that "negotiations are not an end in themselves." It's true that the point of negotiations is to produce agreements, not feel-good photo-ops. Nonetheless, it's important to note that negotiations often produce immediate benefits even while harder underlying issues remain unresolved. Sometimes they result in interim agreements, which may be informal. "While we are talking, you don't do X, and I won't do Y."

If we want a positive example, we need look no further than the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This is a great example to draw from, because if you want to dump on the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, you have to take a number. So if even the widely derided Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are producing something positive, that's a powerful example.

The US is currently pressuring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree on some kind of compromise that would extend the current partial moratorium on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank while negotiations continue. Press reports have suggested that an agreement is not beyond reach. Obviously, the US government is not opposed to interim agreements as a matter of principle.

What might a useful interim agreement with the Afghan insurgency include? Suppose it included a US agreement to end night raids, in exchange for insurgents' agreement to protect schools and aid workers. From the point of view of Afghan civilians, such an agreement would be a win-win: the US would agree to kill fewer Afghan civilians, in exchange for the insurgency agreeing to kill fewer Afghan civilians. If such an agreement could be achieved, what would be the moral argument for opposing it? Negotiations can bring other immediate benefits, even before they result in agreement.

Endless war reinforces the political power of leaders who make war. Negotiations reinforce the power of political actors. Negotiations surface issues: you have to say what you want, and what you are willing to accept. Right now, no-one, not even a U.S. government official, can clearly articulate what the U.S. really wants in Afghanistan, and what the U.S. is willing to accept. What exactly the Taliban want, or are willing to accept, besides driving out foreign forces, has also been the subject of fierce debate. Negotiations smoke people out. You have to say what you want, and what you are willing to accept.

And then, when true positions begin to be revealed, they become the subject of political debate and political pressure. If a sticking point in negotiations turns out to be that the U.S. will not end night raids, or agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, or agree to a reform of the Afghan constitution to reverse the current absurd and corruption-promoting centralization of power (how would it go over if the governor of your state were appointed by the President?) that will become clear, and expose the U.S. to political pressure. Similarly, if a sticking point in negotiations is that insurgent leaders won't agree to protect schools or aid workers, or agree to share power with the non-Pashtun minorities, everyone will see that the insurgent leaders are responsible for the breakdown is talks, exposing them to political pressure from elements of their Pashtun base who want to end the war.

Again, if you want a good example of this, look at the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. A few weeks ago, Israeli actors and academics made headlines around the world when they issued a statement saying that they would refuse to perform in or participate in conferences in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, so as not to legitimize the settlements. What was the political context in which the Israeli actors and academics undertook this bold and successful political action? It was the resumption of the peace talks, in which the settlements are a key sticking point. The resumption of peace talks gave Israeli actors and academics a political platform on which to say: "We Israelis don't want the settlements either."

And this, one reasonably suspects, is a key reason why militarists in every country often display a fanatical opposition to any negotiation. Even the beginning of an inauspicious negotiation moves the focus of attention from violence to politics, and creates opportunities for political movement. There is always the danger, from the point of view of those who oppose any compromise, that compromise might not be so impossible to achieve as they have been trying to make everyone believe, and that the beginning of a negotiation process might increase political pressure for compromise.

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