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State Dept. 'Terror' Label Would Undermine Afghan Peace Talks

54% of Americans favor a withdrawal plan, but a Petraeus-supported effort would hinder Afghan efforts to bring necessary parties to the table

The majority of Americans want the Obama Administration to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, CBS News reports. 54% think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, with 41% opposed. Among Democrats, 73% think the U.S. should set a timetable, with 21% opposed; among independents, 54% support a withdrawal timetable, with 40% opposed; among Republicans, 32% support a withdrawal timetable, with 66% opposed.

Two weeks ago today, Members of the House of Representatives were polled on a similar proposition, when the House voted on an amendment introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern [D-MA], Rep. David Obey [D-WI], and Rep. Walter Jones [R-NC] that would have required the President to establish a timetable for the redeployment of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. That amendment failed, with 153 Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voting yes, and 98 Democrats voting no; while 9 Republicans voted yes and 162 Republicans voted no. So in the McGovern-Obey-Jones "poll," Democrats in the House were 60%-38% in favor of a withdrawal timetable, while House Republicans were 91%-5% against.

If Democratic and Republican voters in the CBS poll had been allowed to stand in for Democrats and Republicans in the House two weeks ago (ignoring independents, also pro-timetable), the McGovern amendment would have passed 243-171, with 186 Democrats and 57 Republicans voting yes, and 54 Democrats and 117 Republicans voting no.

The gap between 162 yes votes and 243 yes votes is a measure of the gap between the House and public opinion - 81 votes. For a majority of the House to demand a timetable for withdrawal would not require eliminating that entire gap, but only about half of it. It is likely that public support for a withdrawal timetable will increase, as the war drags on and more Americans are killed without any noticeable change in the situation on the ground - and as the federal government continues to fail to boost the economy and reduce unemployment. But even compared to the state of public opinion today, it would only require the House to cut its failure to represent public opinion in half in order to muster a majority for a withdrawal timetable. And as the fall Congressional elections approach, it is likely that the House will move in the direction of public opinion.

But some people in the Administration are pushing in the wrong direction, lobbying for steps that would not only undermine establishing a timetable for withdrawal, but would undermine the "serious drawdown" which we were promised would begin in the summer of 2011.

General David Petraeus is pushing to have the Haqqani network, a key component of the Afghan Taliban, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group, "a move that could complicate an eventual Afghan political settlement with the Taliban and aggravate political tensions in the region," the New York Times reports.

This move would directly undermine the policy in support of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban that the Administration has claimed that it is pursuing. Newsweek reported on July 4:

Washington is eager to make [talks with senior Taliban leaders] 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.)

A State Department designation of the Haqqani network as "terrorist" would totally contradict the claim that we are supporting "Afghan-led reconciliation," because if reconciliation is "Afghan-led," then the Afghans get to decide who they will parley with. It's one thing to say that the U.S. is going to have a say in any eventual agreement - of course it will, a big say. It's another thing to say that meaningful Afghan government talks with a key component of the Afghan Taliban are off the table, which is the implication that many would draw and try to enforce as a result of a State Department designation of the Haqqani network as a terror group.

Such a designation would be hard to undo politically: look at what a political ordeal it has been to try to remove former Taliban officials from the United Nations blacklist, even people who have clearly reconciled with the Afghan government and are clearly not involved in any kind of terrorism.

Vice-President Biden told Newsweek we could "bet" on "a whole lot" of troops moving out of Afghanistan in July 2011, and Speaker Pelosi has told the Huffington Post she expects "a serious drawdown" to begin in the summer of 2011.

But it's hard to imagine that by July 2011, there is going to be any kind of stability in Afghanistan or meaningful political framework for resolution without dealing with the Haqqani network, and it's hard to imagine that efforts to confront the Haqqani network militarily are going to make any significant difference by July 2011. So, a State Department designation of the Haqqani network as "terrorist" would constitute a "backdoor escalation": it would deepen the confrontation, in a way that would make it more difficult politically to carry out a significant drawdown beginning in July 2011. Any State Department move to make such a designation should therefore be preceded by as much debate in Washington as any effort to explicitly throw away the promised July 2011 drawdown would be, because undermining the July 2011 "serious drawdown" is a likely impact of such a move.

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Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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