Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer

The Council on Foreign Relations held a discussion panel on the peace negotiations in Afghanistan. James J. Shinn, James Dobbins, and Frank G. Wisner participated in the discussion. Shinn was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs during the final year of the Bush administration. Dobbins was the lead negotiator for America at the 2001 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. Wisner used to work for the State Department (he was the U.S. ambassador to Zambia, then Egypt, then the Philippines, and then India). Wisner moderated the discussion panel. Shinn and Dobbins gave their spiel on how to end the war.

Dobbins spoke first. He started off by offering his answer to the following question. Why couldn’t we just leave Afghanistan and allow the Taliban to take over the country? That’s a pretty good question. Our original goal (at least the one we stated publicly), was to eliminate Al Qaeda, not the Taliban. Why would we have to occupy Afghanistan to do that? After all, Al Qaeda is in Yemen and North Africa. But we don’t have 100,000 troops in those areas. And the Al Qaeda forces there have had limited success in conducting acts of terrorism overseas. So why do we need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan to stop the Al Qaeda forces there?

According to Dobbins, Afghanistan is different. Afghanistan is the only country where the government was allied with Al Qaeda. As such, were the Taliban to return to power they would provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda. To prevent that from happening, America can do any one of three things, according to Dobbins. America could destroy Al Qaeda. America could destroy the Taliban. Or America could separate the Taliban from Al Qaeda. He says that America cannot destroy either organization because both organizations have sanctuaries in Pakistan. That means America has no choice but to break the link between the two.

He argues that Afghanistan is a “weak state” that is being “pulled apart” by her neighbors. And so for the negotiations to succeed, they must include Afghanistan’s neighbors (Russia, America, Pakistan, Iran, and India).

He says the Obama administration agrees with his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. The only difference between him and the administration is that he wants a neutral mediator to handle the negotiations. And the administration apparently doesn’t want that, at least not right now. But he thinks the administration will eventually come around to his position on this issue.

Shinn spoke after Dobbins. According to him, the Taliban reads everything the U.S. media publishes on Afghanistan. That means they know we will withdraw by 2014. They don’t believe they need to negotiate because they believe they can simply wait for us to leave.1 According to Dobbins, in order to force the Taliban into negotiating, America must make it clear that we would be willing to stay indefinitely, perhaps with 20,000 troops.

But even if we could get them to negotiate, according to Shinn, getting an agreement would not be easy because there is not one single group of insurgents to negotiate with. There are several different groups including the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network, and Hezbi Islami. And there is another problem, according to Shinn. The leaders of the insurgency do not have full control over their soldiers and so if they agree to something, they may not be able to make their soldiers abide by the agreement.

Both Shinn and Dobbins agreed that the Pakistanis must be dealt with in order to reach a peace agreement. According to Shinn, the Pakistanis have an incredible degree of control over the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban cannot even begin negotiations until the Pakistanis give them permission. So in order for negotiations to succeed, we must placate the Pakistanis. According to Dobbins, the Pakistanis say they want the following. They want the Taliban to have enough influence in Afghanistan so they will leave Pakistan and so they can keep the Indian secret service away from the Afghan / Pakistani border (Pakistan accuses Indian intelligence of operating in that area. Pakistan accuses India of using the disgruntled people in Baluchistan to stir up trouble. Apparently, they want the Taliban to put an end to that). Pakistan says they don’t want the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan. Now this is what the Pakistanis say. But, according to Dobbins, they may be lying. Despite their rhetoric, Pakistan may still want the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan once again. Or the Pakistanis may be telling the truth because…

“They recognize that having a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul would just open the way to a replication of what they experienced in 2001,” said Dobbins.

If you think about it, this statement implies that America staged 9/11 so we could remove the Taliban from power.

During the Q&A session, someone called Wolfgang asked Dobbins if America would provide the leadership necessary to end the war. Dobbins said America should not be seen as leading the negotiations process.

“I think the Afghans have to be seen to be in the lead even if they are in fact operating largely as a result of external pressures and those pressures have to be fairly delicate, fairly subtle and fairly quiet,” said Dobbins.

Richard Haass argued that America should not enmesh herself in the peace negotiations. We only need to break the link between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. All we have to do is have a policy wherein we will attack the Taliban if they partner with Al Qaeda. He thinks we could do this with five to ten thousand soldiers in Afghanistan.

In response, Dobbins argued that leaving Afghanistan in a state of civil war would provide “fertile ground” for extremist groups. The participants in this war would partner with terrorist groups. He believes the Taliban will be aligned with Al Qaeda as long as the civil war continues. And if the Taliban win, we won’t be able to effectively deal with Al Qaeda because we won’t have any military bases in Afghanistan. We need those bases so we can collect the necessary intelligence. And we need those bases so we can launch attacks against Al Qaeda. Without those bases, we’d be stuck doing what we did during the Clinton administration: “long-range strikes against targets which have largely been vacated by the time your missile gets there.” Of course, throughout this discussion, Dobbins failed to mention that our intelligence community knew about 9/11 before it happened. Obviously, our intelligence on Al Qaeda was pretty good at the time. But I digress.

Everyone who participated in the discussion seemed to agree that leaving Afghanistan in a state of civil war would negatively impact the region. Someone named Jean-Marie said there can’t be a “long-term, low intensity conflict” in Afghanistan with a reduced U.S. military presence. Such a scenario would poison and destabilize the entire region – Pakistan, Central Asia, and perhaps even India. India and Pakistan may even start fighting each other. And so we have to negotiate.

Shinn agreed with this assessment. Leaving Afghanistan in a state of war would have “dire regional consequences.” And unfortunately, the other countries in the region are not willing to do anything to make peace. In fact, one Russian official even told him that he hoped America would lose in Afghanistan.

Professor Nadiri agreed that the conflict would expand beyond Afghanistan if America withdrew and he chided America for refusing to punish Pakistan when she misbehaved. He said that poverty is a problem in Afghanistan because her neighbors can always use money to make Afghans fight each other.

But if you think about it, the region should not become destabilized if America leaves Afghanistan. I find it ironic that someone like Shinn would argue that the Taliban would destabilize Pakistan. He just got through saying that Pakistan controlled the Taliban. And indeed, the Pakistani government originally created the Taliban in the first place. Why would the Pakistani government have the Taliban destabilize their own country? That’s absurd. And the idea that the Taliban could destabilize Central Asia sounds very far fetched to me. The Taliban is a movement made up of Pashtuns. Pashtuns make up a significant portion of the population in southern Afghanistan and north Pakistan. But the northern portion of Afghanistan, the part that is next to Central Asia, is made up of Tajiks and Uzbeks. In other words, the northern part of Afghanistan is full of Central Asians. Those people formed the Northern Alliance during the nineties and fought the Taliban. I find it very hard to believe that they will now accept the Taliban as rulers. And I find it very hard to believe that the Taliban could enter a group of countries in which they have no legitimacy and take over.

The argument that the region will become destabilized if America leaves is so ridiculous that one must ask themselves why the Americans and Europeans are making this argument (I believe that several of the participants during the Q&A session who made this argument were Europeans as they spoke English with a European accent).

Perhaps America is making this argument because she does not want to leave Afghanistan. Perhaps she wants to be an empire. Perhaps whoever is running America wants to stay in Afghanistan so Congress will continue to allocate lots of money to the U.S. military.

On the other hand, perhaps Europe wants America to remain bogged down in Afghanistan. Perhaps Europe is threatening to destabilize Central Asia and Pakistan if America leaves. Perhaps the Europeans want to put America in a no win situation. If America stays in Afghanistan, we will continue to suffer loses. But if we leave, Europe will secretly use their proxies in the region to destabilize Central Asia and Pakistan. And then everyone will blame America for what happened. They will say we did a crappy job in Afghanistan and that is why Central Asia and Pakistan have become destabilized.

Or perhaps the Americans and Europeans are secretly working together. They want others to believe that Europe will screw up the region if America leaves. And so if America stays in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is happy because they get to continue to spend lots of money and they get to occupy a foreign country. But if America leaves, the West is happy because then they get to jack up Central Asia and Pakistan. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it is the following. There is nothing the West likes more than to make Muslims suffer (remember, the entire region is basically Muslim).

This will not stand.

1 Interestingly however, later on Shinn says the Taliban want to negotiate at a location outside of Afghanistan. That implies they do want to negotiate.

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