Could a "Great Negotiation" End the War in Afghanistan?

A commonly proffered argument against negotiations to end the war in
Afghanistan has been: "why should the Afghan Taliban negotiate, when
they think they are winning?" For many months, this argument was
offered by Administration officials to explain why they would not yet
pursue serious negotiations with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban.

More recently, Administration officials are saying that they have
moved significantly.

Newsweek reports:

Washington is eager to make [peace negotiations with
high-ranking insurgents] happen - perhaps more eager than most
Americans realize. "There was a major policy shift that went
completely unreported in the last three months," a senior
administration official tells Newsweek..."We're going to
support Afghan-led reconciliation [with the Taliban]." U.S. officials
have quietly dropped the Bush administration's resistance to talks
with senior Taliban and are doing whatever they can to help Karzai
open talks with the insurgents, although they still say any Taliban
willing to negotiate must renounce violence, reject Al Qaeda, and
accept the Afghan Constitution. (Some observers predict that those
preconditions may eventually be fudged into goals.)

The Administration's shift - if real - is tremendously good news for
ending the war. But even if this accurately reflects the intentions of
the Administration, the arguments made earlier against serious
negotiations are still politically powerful, in part because the
Administration made them, and will likely be thrown back in the
Administration's face by some of its Republican critics if efforts at
a negotiated settlement begin to bear fruit. Therefore, these
arguments still need to be countered, even if the Administration is no
longer making them.

To the claim that the Afghan Taliban have no reason to negotiate
because they believe they are winning, there are several
straightforward answers: 1) not every negotiation that ends a war
follows a military defeat by one side over the other; 2) politicians
close to the Afghan Taliban have been saying for months that a
political settlement is possible if the U.S. is seriously interested;
3) waiting to open negotiations until some hoped-for military position
is achieved is likely to lead nowhere: as one Western diplomat told
Newsweek, "Waiting for the perfect security situation is like
having a baby ... There's never a right time"; and 4) the primary
responsibility of Americans, if we want to end the war, is to ensure
that our government is doing all it can to bring about a negotiated
end to the war, not to handicap the stance towards negotiations of
other actors.

Regarding the first point - not every negotiation that ends a war
follows a military defeat - a key obstacle to moving the debate
forward in the U.S. is that most Americans don't know much diplomatic
history. We learn in school that American and French forces won a
decisive military victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781 that
essentially ended the war - but how did it come to be that half of the
forces assembled against the British at Yorktown were French? That's
part of the diplomatic history that we don't spend much time studying
in school.

This ignorance makes us vulnerable to facile slogans that assume the
all-conquering efficacy of military force and dismiss the possible
efficacy of alternatives. For the neocons in both parties, all you
need to need to know about the diplomatic history of the world since
Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden is that diplomatic efforts
to avert the Second World War failed in Munich in 1938. For the
neocons, every argument is a noun, a verb, and Neville Chamberlain.

But Fredrik Stanton has recently published a corrective to our
ignorance. "Great
Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World
" has eight
chapters, each devoted to a negotiation: Benjamin Franklin's
successful efforts to persuade France to fully support the American
Revolutionary War against Britain; James Monroe's negotiation of the
Louisiana Purchase in 1803; the 1814 Congress of Vienna following the
defeat of Napoleon; the Portsmouth Treaty brokered by Theodore
Roosevelt to end the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, for which Roosevelt
won the Nobel Peace Prize; the Paris Peace Conference following the
first world war, which with its spectacularly unrealistic demands on
Germany, sowed the seeds for the second; the UN/US-brokered
Egyptian-Israeli Armistice of 1949, for which American Ralph Bunche
won the Nobel Peace Prize; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which
President Kennedy's non-maximalist brinksmanship nearly caused but
ultimately averted nuclear war; and the Reykjavik Summit of 1986,
which failed to produce an agreement at the time but ultimately
resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.

In each of these negotiations, with the exception of the Congress of
Vienna, the U.S. was a key protagonist.

Among these episodes, the Portsmouth Treaty speaks most directly to
our present predicament in Afghanistan, insofar as the Portsmouth
Treaty most clearly ended a war without one side having defeated the
other militarily.

Between the February 1904 Japanese attack on Russian forces in
Manchuria and early 1905, the Russo-Japanese war had cost more than
150,000 lives, Stanton reports. President Roosevelt believed that
continued fighting would make both sides worse off, but until
mid-1905, neither side shared his view, each thinking they would
benefit from continued fighting. In May 1905, Japan and Russia agreed
to Roosevelt's proposal for negotiations.

Why did they agree to negotiate, when neither had been defeated? Each
side knew they had something to lose from continued fighting, and that
a negotiated settlement might not be very different from what they
could accomplish through force. The bloodshed had turned world opinion
sharply against the war, and this had begun to affect the ability of
Russia and Japan to raise money for the war.

Yet when the negotiations began, there was no cease-fire, and it was
far from obvious that the negotiations would succeed. Both sides had
difficulty finding delegates, because insiders believed that the
negotiations would fail and that the negotiating officials would be
ruined politically. The chief Russian delegate to the peace
conference, an opponent of the war, didn't believe that Russian
leaders sincerely wanted to end it.

If some folks in the White House fear they might pay a political price
for an agreement ending the war that doesn't "smell like a win" but
will "end in an argument" - as Gen. McChrystal's chief of operations
told us we should expect in any event, no
matter what the U.S. military does in Afghanistan - they have
nothing to fear compared to Japan's delegation to Portsmouth in 1905:

Komura [the chief Japanese delegate] faced his own
pressures. A visiting member of the Japanese Parliament told reporters
in Portsmouth that "Public sentiment was such in Japan ... that Baron
Komura would be murdered upon his return home if he

But in fact Komura did make concessions to secure an agreement, and
although the concessions were wildly unpopular in Japan - the Japanese
public had been led to believe, for example, that war reparations from
Russia were in the offing - he lived to tell the tale, and his career
does not seem to have suffered, as he continued to serve as a Japanese
diplomat for several more years, receiving promotions and honors, and
signing agreements with other countries on behalf of Japan.

If Richard Holbrooke succeeded in making a deal with the Afghan
Taliban, one suspects that most Americans who were paying any
attention would be grateful. The majority of Americans, the
Washington Postreported
in June
, say the war is not worth fighting - a far cry from the
war fever of Japanese public opinion during the Portsmouth talks.

But America still has something in common with the Japanese public of
1905: many Americans - particularly some influential Americans in
Washington - have unrealistic goals in Afghanistan. If you can get
people to have unrealistic goals, it's easy to argue against a
diplomatic settlement. A negotiated solution won't be all unicorns and
ponies! But further military combat won't result in unicorns and
ponies either. To declare that one won't support a diplomatic
settlement because it won't achieve a goal that is very unlikely to be
achieved by military force is something akin to believing that you are
not overweight because you haven't been on a scale lately.

Whatever one thinks of former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert
Blackwill's proposal
for a "de facto partition" of Afghanistan, Blackwill deserves credit
for trying to make a suggestion consistent with an assessment of U.S.
prospects that isn't afflicted by denial:

With an occupying army largely ignorant of local history,
tribal structures, language, customs, politics and values, the United
States cannot, through social engineering, win over, in the
foreseeable future, sufficient numbers of the Afghan Pashtun on whom
[a successful application of counterinsurgency theory]

Negotiations aren't a magic wand. They aren't going to magically
transform an existing balance of forces into something completely
different. But military force can't do that either. Any "cup of
poison" you have to drink at the diplomatic table, as Ayatollah
Khomeini described the UN-mediated truce between Iran and Iraq in 1988
that ended the Iran-Iraq war, is almost certainly a "cup of poison"
you would otherwise eventually would have had to drink on the
battlefield, with greater loss of life.

Not surprisingly, a persistent theme in Stanton's book is the need to
have realistic assessments of the interests and capabilities of one's
adversaries and interlocutors. In lobbying the kingdom of France to
take America's side against Britain, Franklin did not appeal to the
Rights of Man; Franklin appealed to France's evident self-interest in
weakening the British Empire. As the French Foreign Minister wrote at
the time to France's Ambassador to Spain:

"What ought to lead France to join with America is the
great enfeeblement of England to be effected by the subtraction of a
third of her Empire."

In negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson and Monroe knew that
Napoleon needed money for expected war in Europe, and suspected that a
deal would be in France's interest insofar as it could put Louisiana
permanently beyond the reach of the British. But France knew that
Jefferson was under extreme pressure to resolve the problem of New
Orleans. France had ordered authorities in New Orleans to block
American goods from passing down the Mississippi, bringing half of
America's trade to a halt. Residents of western states called for war
and threatened secession if Washington failed to act. A Senate
resolution demanding an immediate U.S. attack on New Orleans failed

Then as now, there were influential people who were extremely
skeptical about the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

Alexander Hamilton wrote:

"There is not the most remote possibility that that the
ambitious and aggrandizing views of Bonaparte will commute the
territory for money. Its acquisition is of immense importance to
France, and has long been an object of her extreme solicitude. The
attempt therefore to purchase, in the first instance, will certainly
fail, and in the end, war must be resorted to, under all the
accumulation of difficulties caused by a previously and strongly
fortified possession of the country by our adversary."

But Hamilton was far from the only influential American who was
pessimistic about the possibility of a diplomatic solution. On the day
the treaty was signed in Paris transferring Louisiana to the United
States - the state of trans-Atlantic communication was such that it
could take three months to send an urgent message and receive a reply
- President Jefferson wrote, "I am not sanguine in obtaining a cession
of New Orleans for money." But despite his pessimism, Jefferson
pressed for a diplomatic solution, because he believed the alternative
was a war with France for New Orleans that would take seven years and
cost over a hundred thousand lives.

The image that many Americans today have of the Cuban Missile Crisis -
if they have any image at all - is likely that of Secretary of State
Dean Rusk's statement when the Soviets appeared to stand back from
following through on a threat to run the U.S. blockade of Cuba: "We're
eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."

But, as Stanton recounts, while publicly President Kennedy struck the
pose of standing firm, in his private diplomacy with Premier
Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, Kennedy was determined to create and
maintain a realistic path for the Soviet Union to stand down from the
confrontation without "defeat" or humiliation.

Robert Kennedy later wrote:

"Every opportunity was to be given to the Russians to
finds a peaceful settlement which would not diminish their national
security or be a public humiliation."

To avoid war, in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba,
President Kennedy was ready to agree to a U.S. commitment not to
invade Cuba - a commitment that all subsequent U.S. presidents honored
- and to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Stanton recounts:

[President Kennedy] had recently read Barbara Tuchman's
book The Guns of August, which catalogued the errors that led to the
start of World War I, and the risk of catastrophe from one side
misinterpreting the other's signals haunted him. "We were not going to
misjudge," Kennedy said, "or precipitously push our adversaries into a
course of action that was not intended or anticipated."

When the Soviet ship Bucharest neared the U.S. quarantine
line on October 25, 1962, President Kennedy decided to let the ship

"We don't want to push him to a precipitous action - give
him time to consider," the president said of Khrushchev. "I don't want
to put him in a corner from which he cannot escape."

When Khrushchev accepted Kennedy's offer to promise not to invade Cuba
and to quietly remove U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for
withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, President Kennedy followed
through on his anti-humiliation policy:

President Kennedy carefully avoided turning the outcome
into a public humiliation for the Soviet Union. "He instructed all
members of the ExComm [the Executive Committee of the National
Security Council] and government," his brother [Robert] wrote, "that
no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any
kind of victory."

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was often compared
to President Kennedy. If President Obama now emulates President
Kennedy in engaging the leadership of the Afghan Taliban as President
Kennedy engaged Premier Khrushchev, creating and maintaining a
plausible path for them to stand down from their confrontation with
the U.S. - one which would not diminish their security or be a public
humiliation - then President Obama will deserve the comparison; in the
words of Thomas Paine, he will deserve "the love and thanks of man and

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