UN: Time for Direct Talks with Afghan Taliban Leaders

The top United Nations official for Afghanistan has called for direct
talks with senior Taliban leaders. Is anyone in Washington listening?

The New York Timesreported
that Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative
for Afghanistan, "called on Afghan officials to seek the removal of at
least some senior Taliban leaders from the United Nations' list of
terrorists, as a first step toward opening direct negotiations with
the insurgent group."

Eide also called on the U.S. to speed its review of the roughly 750
detainees in its military prisons in Afghanistan - another principal
grievance of Taliban leaders.

Eide said he hoped that the two steps would open the way for
face-to-face talks between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders.

"If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to
the relevant person in authority," Mr. Eide said. "I think the time
has come to do it."

It's an unquestioned dogma in official Washington that while of course
every informed person knows that the endgame in Afghanistan is a
negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, the time is
not ripe for negotiations; the Afghan Taliban have to be weakened
first through military escalation, because their leaders are not ready
to talk peace.

It's never explained how U.S. officals know that Afghan Taliban
leaders are not ready to talk peace, unless the definition of "talking
peace" is "acceding to U.S. demands." A reasonable inference is that
these statements by U.S. officials are a dodge: U.S. officials are not
ready to talk peace.

The empirical method of determining whether someone is ready to talk
peace is that you try to talk peace with them; so far, that has not
been meaningfully tried. Now the UN's Kai Eide, by calling for these
two concrete steps to try to move towards direct talks, has laid down
a marker that we can all measure to evaluate if U.S. officials are
ready to talk peace. Is the U.S. pushing for the removal of senior
Taliban officials from the U.N. blacklist so they can participate in
talks? Is it speeding its review of Afghan detainees? If not, then we
can fairly infer that U.S. officials are not ready to talk peace, and
need more pressure to become ready.

If U.S. officials are ever pressed by U.S. reporters to explain
evidence that Afghan Taliban leaders are willing to talk peace, it's
not showing up in the news pages.

On January 21, for example, the Wall Street Journalreported
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the three main leaders of the
Afghan insurgency, "has held out the possibility of negotiating with
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and outlined a roadmap for political
reconciliation, opening what could be the most promising avenue for
Mr. Karzai's effort to peacefully resolve the conflict."

Hekmatyar called for elections under a neutral caretaker government
once U.S.-led forces withdraw and said he would accept an impartial
international peacekeeping force.

"Negotiations with the Afghan government will not be fruitful unless
the foreigners give the Afghan government the authority to start
negotiations independently - but unfortunately it has not been given
this authority yet," Hekmatyar said.

What is the U.S. reaction to this? All the Journal says is
that the U.S. government refuses to make a meaningful distinction
between Hekmatyar and the two other main insurgent chiefs.

Meanwhile, the evidence is mounting that the current U.S. military
escalation is unlikely to make much positive difference to the
eventual negotiated solution. The full
sent by Ambassador Eikenberry represented a "detailed
rebuttal to the counterinsurgency strategy" offered by Gen.
McChrystal, the New York Timesreported
, and argued that sending more troops would
delay, rather than bring forward, the eventual
withdrawal of U.S. troops:

"Sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans
will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our
people home on a reasonable timetable," he wrote Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, on Monday the Timespointed
that the cooperation from Pakistan that the U.S. was expecting
as an essential part of its Afghan strategy will
almost surely not materialize before the date that Obama said he would
review the strategy.

When Obama announced his decision to send additional troops, he made
clear the chances of success hinged significantly on Pakistan's
willingness to eliminate militants' havens in its territory, the
Times notes. US officials described the surge of troops as a
hammer, but said it "required a Pakistani anvil on the other side of
the border to prevent the Taliban from retreating to the mountains."
Now, the Times says, that strategy "appears imperiled" by
Pakistan's statement that it would not launch any new offensive "for
as long as a year," noting that some US officials "think it could be

The Times notes that in his Dec. 1 speech at West Point,
Obama said he would reassess his plan at the end of 2010. But if
Pakistan does not launch a new offensive this year, operations on
Pakistan's side of the border will not have begun by the time Obama
has made this promised assessment.

Since there is little reason to believe that military escalation is
going to change anything fundamental in a positive way for the outcome
of negotiations, there is no reason to wait to start negotiations.

In the next few months, Congress will have a window of opportunity to
try to redirect U.S. policy, when the Administration must come to
Congress for more money to pay for its military escalation.

In preparation for Congress' consideration of the war supplemental, we
need public discussion, complete with public pressure, calling for negotiations and a
timeline for U.S. military withdrawal. Nothing meaningful is likely to
come out of Congress if the Congressional deliberation is not preceded
by a vigorous public discussion of negotiations and a withdrawal

If you would like to contribute to the discussion on behalf of
negotiations and a timeline for withdrawal, a strategic place to add
your voice is here
at change.org

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