Policy Battle over Afghan Peace Talks Intensifies

WASHINGTON (IPS) — The struggle within the Barack Obama administration over Afghanistan policy entered a new phase when the president suggested at a meeting of his “war cabinet” Friday that it might be time to start negotiations with the Taliban, according to a report in the New York Times Saturday.

Obama said that the success of the recent operation to take control of the “insurgent stronghold” of Marja, combined with the killing of insurgent leaders in Pakistan by drone attacks, might be sufficient to “justify an effort to begin talks with the Taliban”, two participants in the meeting told the Times.

That proposal puts Obama directly at odds with key members of his national security team, especially Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both Gates and Clinton have argued in recent months that attempting to negotiate with Taliban leaders would be fruitless unless and until they have been convinced by U.S. military operations that they are losing.

In an indication that Gates and Clinton intend to resist Obama’s proposal to start talks soon, the Times reported that two unnamed officials who attended the meeting said any plans for “reaching out” to the leadership of the Taliban are likely to be delayed until after U.S. forces launch a major military offensive in Kandahar province.

That, of course, is the Gates-Clinton position on the issue, which is also held by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

By suggesting that Obama’s suggestion is not likely to prevail, the opponents of early negotiations were expressing confidence that they will once again force him to back away from a position that is unacceptable to the military leadership and the field commander. They succeeded in getting Obama to retreat from his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq in March 2009 and from his initial resistance to a large troop increase in Afghanistan last November.

The argument that will now be made by Clinton, Gates and McChrystal that the administration should wait until after the Kandahar operation is launched before taking any negotiating initiative is evidently aimed at giving McChrystal’s command as much time as possible to show successful results against the Taliban before negotiations begin.

The offensive in Kandahar is not expected to begin until this summer, according to military officials, and it could take several months before U.S. troops even get into the city itself. The military and its allies in Obama’s war cabinet would certainly argue for delaying talks until the operation could demonstrate clear success. That could mean waiting until well into 2011.

Obama identified mid-2011 as the trigger point for the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Obama will also need to show the U.S. public that he is making progress on an exit strategy by 2012 – the biggest single prod for starting peace negotiations much earlier.

The question of when negotiations with the Taliban might begin has been hanging over the administration’s national security team for weeks. As one official told the Times, starting negotiations “is now more a question of ‘when’ than a question of ‘if’.”

Gen. McChrystal has been worried that Obama would agree to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban involving a relatively short timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Contrary to the public position voiced frequently by Gates that the Taliban would not negotiate seriously under present conditions, McChrystal understands that there are indications the Taliban leaders would try to use their present strong territorial position as bargaining leverage on a settlement. That was the gist of what an official of McChrystal’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told IPS in late January.

The Taliban would presumably offer formal guarantees that it would sever all ties with al Qaeda in return for withdrawal of all foreign troops, based on the signal conveyed in an article on the website of the Taliban’s Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan website Dec. 5.

The Washington Post‘s military correspondents reported Feb. 22 that “senior military officials” had decided to target Marja mainly to convince U.S. public opinion that the U.S. military can be successful in Afghanistan. That shift in perception about military success, in turn, would be expected to translate into a slower troop withdrawal, according to the Post report.

That reasoning implied that a shift in public opinion toward support for military operations in Afghanistan would discourage Obama from agreeing to a short timetable for withdrawal in any negotiations with the Taliban.

When Obama announced a compromise strategy in November, he hinted that the war would have to end through negotiations, but left the question of how and when the United States would participate in those negotiations unresolved. In referring to the military objective in Afghanistan, Obama refused to talk about defeating the Taliban in his Dec. 2 speech. Instead, he referred to “a strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.”

That was in sharp contrast to his Mar. 27 speech, in which he referred to the “uncompromising core of the Taliban” and said “they must be defeated”. Obama was clearly implying that negotiations would be a necessary part of the strategy.

But Obama provided no explicit policy guidance on when and how negotiations would begin. That allowed Clinton and Gates to continue to offer arguments against such negotiations publicly.

On ABC News Dec. 5, Clinton suggested that there was no reason to believe that the Taliban would agree to the main U.S. demand for an end to all ties with al Qaeda, citing Mullah Omar’s refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. And Gates repeated the argument that the Taliban would only be ready to negotiate after their “momentum” had been stopped.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had already begun asking the United States to support him in starting negotiations with the Taliban – something Clinton had publicly opposed. Karzai said on Dec. 3 that he would invite Mullah Omar himself to talks.

He let it be known that he would use the London Conference Jan. 27-28 to invite the Taliban to participate in a national “Grand Council” meeting on peace.

That intention heated up the debate in Washington and in McChrystal’s ISAF headquarters. In Kabul just four days before the conference, an ISAF official told IPS the issue then under debate within the administration was whether Mullah Omar would be an acceptable participant in a future Afghan government.

“If Mullah Omar were to turn around tomorrow and say he is ready to come back,” he asked, “would we be comfortable with that?” The official suggested that the London Conference was an opportunity to achieve consensus on the issue.

Seeking clarification of the U.S.-NATO stance on the issue of Mullah Omar’s acceptability now appears to have been aimed at getting a decision against early negotiations with the Taliban leadership. Barring Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual as well as political leader, from participation in any negotiations would have meant, in practical terms, refusing to deal with the Taliban’s Leadership Committee.

Back in Washington, however, Obama made no decision to support or oppose Karzai’s proposal and, by extension, left open the possible participation by Mullah Omar in talks on a peace agreement.

An administration official recalled recently that the George W. Bush administration adopted a firm policy against reconciliation with the Taliban, and that then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once told Karzai in a phone conversation to “shut up about reconciliation” with the Taliban. But the Obama administration still hadn’t adopted a new policy on the issue, the official told IPS.

Obama’s initiative in proposing to take advantage of even modest successes in Afghanistan and Pakistan to start talks suggests that he was waiting for the earliest possible favourable moment politically to make a move toward diplomacy. It remains to be seen, however, whether he is willing to stand up to pressures from opponents of such an initiative or will retreat once again to avoid any confrontation with the military.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

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  1. danielet said on March 16th, 2010 at 3:55pm #

    Obama, I believe, will stick to his guns and pull out next year because he’s the type who hates to be blackmailed. He was suckered by Petraeus into replacing McKiernan with McChrystal– the mythmaker of the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman stories used to cover up friendly fire snafus. Now Obama knows that his commander in Afghanistan is a flunky of the Republican presidential candidate of 2012. So, just before McChrystal provides Petraeus with an: ELECT ME SO WE CAN SLOG ON, a la Bush in 2004 electoral victory, Obama will cut the troops involvement right from under his feet in Summer 2011, leaving the Taliban to the SHANGHAI COOPERATIVE ACCORS composed of Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, all the “stans” rich in gas&oil and a few more. China will never let Pakistan fall and Russia will never let India fall. BOTH will not allow the Taliban to takeover Afghanistan. Knowing that Karzai has long been negotiating with Moscow for the day he kicks out the US.

    In the meantime our mom&dad troops are fighting intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, shooting in the dark at unseen suicide shahids out of fear that they might never see their kids again. Special Forces cowboys, selected for brawn, not brains, are making a mess of it all (in most cases, not all). I don’t see any of the adaptability to Afghans that CAP and MAT teams showed to Vietnamese. It’s costing us $16 million to kill an Afghan Taliban as it did to kill a Viet Cong because the Pentagon brass in under the illusion that limitless funding for defense (actually offense) is guaranteed by the Constitution. And yet the Taliban sees that a deal now would be a lot smarter than refusing to turn over binLaden was 2001. They can tell from the Dubai real-estate debacle that the generosity of their Gulf benefactors is drying up. Of course, by 2003, their decision seemed a lot smarter as Bush pulled his bait-and-switch, getting Congress to fully fund the Afghan War and then totally cannibalizing the force for use in Iraq.

    At any rate, the Petraeus/McChrystal BS would never have passed– especially after our own bankers on Wall Street did more damage to US economy that binLaden would have ever dared hope to do. Nor would the Bush/Cheney/neocons Bush-it “World War IV” racist crusade against Muslims have passed had these damned chicken s–t academics done what the New Left forced them to do in the 60s: demand that the Establishment engage in MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE through teach-ins. But so scared are college professors of the AIPAC threat to have all scholarship grants vetted through its flunkies in Congress that all these supposed “leftist revolution talkers” just shut up. The only voice tearing through the Bush-it and neocon Zionist censors was that of Pat Buchanan!

    If you really care, at the very least about OUR kids sent to war, thus producing lots of orphans and widows back home, then you should never allow to be done to our brave kids that volunteered what you would never allow be done to your biological kids. And then there are all the Muslim victims of the neocons’ so called “World war IV” on Islam. Every time we kill one, an extended family swears commitment to self-sacrifice avenging the victim of our shooting out of fear.

    Gareth Porter was my nemesis during the Vietnam War. We debated a lot. But he has been so prescient since 9/11 that I wouldn’t bother with the Zionist lobby’s NY Times, WashPost and LATimes and just read his synthesis. Also, follow WAR IN CONTEXT website, showing that there still is media that probes and analyzes insightfully and honestly, though these journalists have to live like poor church mice to make a career of it. My point is that there is no excuse for ignorance thanks to the efforts of many. ALL OF YOU SHOULD READ MCCHRYSTAL’S REPORT OG AUG/09:


    You need nothing else to make your case for all money and no brains Pentagon. You must, at the very least, think of patriotic American moms and dads that enlisted and have to serve under mediocrity in fancy uniforms with cardboards of ribbons; make them accountable by knowing where the lean mean BS machine stops and truth rears it ugly head. Start by reading Gareth Porter regularly—as I have always done, EVEN during Vietnam!

  2. mary said on March 17th, 2010 at 7:56am #

    The editors of medialens write about the way in which the British press and the BBC are reporting the war on Afghanistan.



  3. Mulga Mumblebrain said on March 17th, 2010 at 12:10pm #

    mary, if you are in need of a laugh,or are a student of the far reaches of (semi)-human sycophancy and groveling, just read Greg Sheridan in today’s ‘The Australian’. Clearly the Chosen Ones have indicated that the former levels of self-abasement and arse-licking they expected from their Sabbat Goy stooges no longer suffice to sate their boundless hunger for adulation by the planet’s ‘other ranks’. I recommend retaining it just in case you accidentally ingest some (other) noxious substance and require an effective and speedy emetic.