Invite the Taliban to the Afghanistan Conference

Why excluding the insurgency won't work.

On Jan. 28 in London, an international conference on Afghanistan will bring together all of the major parties with a stake in that country's future, with one notable exception: the Taliban. Since their 2001 overthrow, the Taliban have been systematically excluded from negotiations. However, the recent coordinated attacks on Kabul and the growing number of military and civilian casualties are sad reminders that, even from the sidelines, the Taliban cast a long shadow over Afghanistan's future. It is time for the international community to address the only issue that really matters for peace in Afghanistan: how to make the Taliban part of a lasting solution.

A new reconciliation program to be presented by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in London and supported by U.S. funding is an encouraging first step, but not a long-term solution. It might temporarily take small groups of local fighters away from the battlefield, but it does not lay the foundation for long-term peace. Recent statements by both the U.S. defense secretary and Gen. Stanley McChrystal have failed to address the fundamental ambiguity that has long undermined the Afghanistan mission: Is reconciliation meant for immediate, short-term stability gains or as part of longer-term political efforts to build peace? If it is the former, this program will likely contribute to advancing local corruption and little else. However, by drawing a distinction between the war against the Taliban and the one against al Qaeda, and by setting a timeline for the progressive drawdown of U.S. combat troops, President Barack Obama has created a context in which a reconciliation program could become part of a broader peace process. For this to happen, the process must be underpinned by a real political strategy, which is why timing and shape matter greatly.

The credible return of the United Nations is also crucial, after the embarrassment of the Afghan presidential election and years of being relegated to the impossible role of aid coordinator. Despite its flaws, the United Nations remains the only organization legitimate enough in the eyes of many to broker a final political settlement. This does not exclude the United States from playing a key role, especially in an initial phase (probably already begun) of secret contacts, but essentially the United Nations is the only one able to close the deal. The Afghan president should lead a compact for peace under U.N. auspices with the support of key regional stakeholders like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Under a reinvigorated and more political Security Council mandate, the United Nations could appoint an international negotiator, a Lakhdar Brahimi-type figure, who has the respect of the permanent members, especially the United States.

Other regional stakeholders will have to be brought onboard. Despite Pakistan's strategic ambiguity, its military elites will recognize that it is in their interest for the Taliban to join the mainstream Afghan political process because that provides guarantee for Pakistan's long-lasting influence in Afghanistan. Iran, Russia, and India, on the other hand, have been long opposed to the Taliban's return. To convince them, the United States will need to step up and offer some serious security guarantees. This is especially true for India, which will see a settlement with the Taliban as a victory for Pakistan; to sweeten the deal, the United States will need to lean hard on Pakistan to rein in terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which masterminded the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. But these countries' cooperation is key: As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Russia is an important partner, while India and Iran can have a real impact on local politics in Afghanistan.

Who these stakeholders will negotiate with is an open question, and it's not clear the Taliban themselves know the answer. The so-called Quetta Shura, headed by Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, will certainly be two major stakeholders in the talks.

The talks' timing is probably the most important and complex factor. The London conference could be an opportunity to make the first official appeal for the insurgents to lay down their arms in exchange for recognition as a legitimate opposition group and the removal of their leaders from the U.N. terrorist list. Of course, such an appeal could fall on deaf ears, at least in the short term. The Taliban think they are on a winning streak and see the Afghan government as doomed to collapse. However, the Taliban will ultimately face the dilemma of when to cash in on their momentum. McChrystal's counterinsurgency campaign could inflict serious damage, forcing them to make that decision sooner rather than later. They also must understand that a return to the chaos and fragmentation of the 1990s is not an option. At best, they can hope to consolidate their presence in the Pashtun belt and get a share of the power in Kabul. At that point, having lost the main impetus for their insurgency, the Taliban would have to answer to the Afghan people, who overwhelmingly oppose their return to power.

Following a cease-fire, the first step would be to call a series of loya jirgas where an agenda of substantive policy questions could be set. Questions about topics such as the balance of economic and political power between Afghanistan's various ethnic communities, the place of religion in society, and how justice should be administered will need to be addressed. Such broad-ranging discussions are likely to be divisive and time-consuming. However, cosmetic measures, such as giving a few "moderate" Taliban seats in the Afghan government, will fail to address the deeper political and social fractures in Afghanistan. All parties will have to be ready to make difficult compromises. The Taliban will need to sever ideological and operational ties with al Qaeda. Karzai must reduce his dependence on international protection and restore his credibility with the Afghan people, primarily by tackling corruption. The West can facilitate a lasting political solution for Afghanistan and finally bring its young service members home, but to do so it will have to accept that its values will not be the only ones shaping Afghanistan's future.

Achieving a power-sharing arrangement for peace will not be easy; one need only look at Northern Ireland, where more than 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the main parties are still engaged in "critical talks." The temptation for expediency and short-term gains among commanders and politicians is immense. But the choice now is either accepting full defeat or managing failure with a long-lasting political exit scenario.



An Aggregation of Nincompoops

Viewed from across the pond, the U.S. government seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke.

In 1939, Joseph Kennedy, then serving as U.S. ambassador to Britain, petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restrict foreign screenings of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the grounds that the film was "an indictment of our government" that "will cause our allies to view us in an unfavorable light." Capra's depiction of a Washington dominated by special interests and toadying political hacks also angered Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, a Democrat from Kentucky, who complained that the movie presented a "grotesque distortion" of Washington politics that suggested that the Senate was nothing more than an "aggregation of nincompoops."

So not much has changed in the last 70 years.

These days, mind you, there's no need for a latterday Capra to come to Washington -- not when the Senate's tragicomedy is broadcast to the world daily by CNN and the Internet. International observers of Washington politics gaze with wonder at a system that produces so much drama from so little legislation and a republic in which even winning a contest by a landslide can't guarantee success. American elections used to have consequences. Now, they merely determine which party the public wants to hate next.

That's one explanation for the present sorry state of affairs, in which the party occupying the White House and controlling both houses of Congress cannot figure out how to pass a health-care bill that has been the progressive Holy Grail since the time of Harry Truman. Of course, the other obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the Democratic Party simply isn't very good at politics.

If it's too easy to pass legislation in many countries (including Britain), it seems too difficult to get anything done in Washington, with the 60-vote hurdle now the rule rather than the exception. Excepting the Democrats' rare, tenuous, and wasted supermajority, power generally resides, however improbably or quixotically, with the minority party, which attempts and often succeeds in stymieing every majority initiative. Minority obstructionism, of course, can be principled. But its chief attraction is that it absolves the opposition of responsibility for anything while making the majority look, well, stupid. As former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said of the press, this kind of "power without responsibility" has been "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." And Democratic complaints that "It's the system, stupid" aren't likely to impress too many voters -- who, rather rightfully, despise Congress no matter who runs it -- even if, by any reasonable measure, the system is dysfunctional and perverse.

So what a difference a single vote makes! The lamentations that followed Martha Coakley's stunning defeat in Massachusetts were heard on the far side of the Atlantic as well, as health care and cap-and-trade legislation disappeared with a 2 percent drift in the Senate tides. All of a sudden it seems as though "Yes We Can" actually means "Well, All Things Being Equal, We'd Like to Have a Go, but, Actually, It's Terribly Complicated and Difficult. So We Won't."

This has consequences that extend beyond the useful reminder that, despite the promise of his rhetoric, the U.S. president is constrained by both the constitution and the feebleness, even the ineptitude, of his Democratic colleagues. President Barack Obama deliberately pitched himself as a leader for the post-globalization age. So many promises were made on so many fronts that, inevitably, many of them would be broken or ignored or, as now seems increasingly probable, chewed up by the legislative process.

No wonder Europeans are unimpressed by this president and his inability to deliver upon the promises he made, not merely to American voters, but to the entire planet. Campaign aspirations are always snuffed out by brutal political reality. But rarely has the contrast between campaign poetry and governing prose been quite so clear.

Nowhere has this been more the case than on climate change and the fate of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. European leaders had hoped for more from Obama at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Hamstrung by a skeptical Congress, Obama did his best. But it was a best that satisfied few people and, once more, reminded Europeans that the U.S. president is less powerful, in terms of domestic politics, than any prime minister. It was a reminder of the Yankee separation of powers. Only the most cockeyed optimist would bet on cap-and-trade legislation passing this year.

Something similar might be said of Guantánamo. Obama's promise to close the camp was the clearest possible signal that the new administration would break with its predecessor. Yet a year has passed and Gitmo remains open. Again, political realities -- dictated by hysterical, bed-wetting congressmen who argue, with straight faces and empty minds, that the United States cannot safely imprison the Guantánamo inmates on American soil proper -- have stalled progress. But at some point one begins to wonder what the point of having a majority is if it isn't used for anything.

Because, more than anything else, it was the promise to close Gitmo that earned the president his Nobel Peace Prize, the failure to solve the detainee problem now makes that award seem even more preposterously premature. Much worse than making the president seem weak, it risks making him seem ridiculous. While politicians can survive and even, on rare occasions, embrace disapproval, mockery and ridicule are much more poisonous.

Another irritant, imposed upon the rest of the international community by the world's most ridiculous deliberative body, is the lack of U.S. diplomatic representation in key spots. Brazil went nearly a year without an ambassador because of a senatorial hold, while important positions at the World Trade Organization and other bodies still remain unfilled.

It's a measure, mind you, of how Washington has changed. In the Capra film, Jefferson Smith used the filibuster to heroically resist the system. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to persuade the majority party to run screaming for the hills.

Right now, however, the Democrats might want to take a cue from Smith's epic speech in the movie: "You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place." Unless they do show some spine, it's hard to see what they're for -- and far less why voters should bother endorsing Democratic candidates in November. The system may be ridiculous, but it is what it is -- and when managed correctly, things can be changed and done. The game remains the game. Unless the Democratic Party realizes that, then it can hardly complain if voters -- and the international community -- decide it's a lost cause.

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