Let's Make a Deal

The United States and the Taliban should be able to work out a compromise on Afghanistan. But will the Afghans be able to live with it?

OSLO — I happened to be in Oslo for a conference (of the very worthy Center for Humanitarian Dialogue) when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his Afghanistan speech on June 22. The next morning I sat down with Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan under the Taliban government. Zaeef (above left, in 2001) was imprisoned in Guantánamo, and his autobiography, My Life With the Taliban, is infused with an obviously sincere hatred for the United States. Though he is no longer a member of the Taliban, he is believed to be in touch with the leadership, and American diplomats, among others, now use Zaeef as an intermediary with his old colleagues. Taliban who talk may soon become more important figures than Taliban who fight.

I asked Zaeef, a burly man of 43 with spectacles and a wiry black beard, whether he thought Obama's announcement that the United States would withdraw 33,000 troops by summer 2012 would increase the chances for a settlement. "It's very hard for me to take this information truly," he said. Zaeef assumed Obama was lying. But what happens, I asked, if you see the troops actually leaving? "They have to change the strategy from war to politics," Zaeef said. The United States, that is, has to stop fighting and start talking.

U.S. troops will not stop fighting, of course. But Obama's speech signals the beginning of a new stage of talking. Peace, the president said, can only arrive via a "political settlement." Though this has long been the official American position, Obama gave it much more emphasis than he had before and spoke less than he usually does about progress inside Afghanistan. He did say that "because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made."

But is that true? Have military gains made the Taliban amenable to diplomacy in a way that they were not before? Zaeef dismissed the idea with a polemical flourish. "If you kill one Taliban, five more will come," he said. That's the party line, of course. And American military persistence may have helped persuade the Taliban that it could not simply wait until the foreign troops went home. But Taliban officials have been talking about a political settlement for the last two years or so, and NATO allies have been urging the United States to take the offers seriously; it is the American position that has changed. Moreover, the vaunted -- and genuine -- military gains in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have been offset by growing Taliban control of the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, as well as mounting violence in the north perpetrated by both Taliban-affiliated fighters and groups such as Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group associated with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

And the military effort has shown far more signs of success than either the massive campaign to train Afghan security forces or the civilian side of the counterinsurgency effort. As the Afghanistan expert Gilles Dorronsoro writes in a recent report titled "Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition," U.S. influence over Afghan governance is now "negligible," while "there is nothing to indicate that the army will be able to act autonomously over a large part of the country's territory in two or three years." Dorronsoro argues that the American position has grown weaker rather than stronger; even if this is unduly pessimistic, it's hard to take seriously Obama's implication that the United States has waited until the balance of power has tipped its way before beginning talks.

And this brings us back to Zaeef, and to the question of what kind of Afghanistan the Taliban is prepared to accept. I asked him whether he believed, as some other Taliban figures have said, that the group made mistakes during its period of brutal and reactionary rule in the late 1990s. He wouldn't bite. "There was no government then," he said. "We have to disarm the warlords. We have to punish the criminals. You have to be strong with them, be harsh with them." Zaeef is very fond of the words "harsh" and "punish," and he uses them as terms of praise. "Afghanistan cannot be controlled without a good and smart dictator," he told me. "You need someone to be strong, honest, and also harsh." Zaeef views democracy as a Western bauble prized only by decadent urbanites. (He is himself a rustic from Kandahar province.) 

At the same time, Zaeef is no medievalist. The day before we spoke, he approached Fatima Gailani, a leading Afghan feminist also attending the conference, to ask for help in opening separate boarding schools for boys and girls. Under the Taliban, he insists, "there will be freedom for women." It's not quite clear what Zaeef means by that, since he says that the Taliban's goal is "Islamic law." But he also favors (as the Quran dictates) female inheritance and the payment of dowry to women rather than their families. Zaeef says that the Taliban will not insist on control over the Pashtun-majority districts of the south, though David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency guru with long experience in Afghanistan, says that the Taliban field commanders he has spoken to say that they expect just that, along with control over several central ministries.

Can the United States live with such an Afghanistan? It can -- so long as the Taliban, in Obama's words, "break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution." American officials say they believe that Taliban leaders are prepared to accept those conditions -- or at least the central leadership in the Pakistan city of Quetta is. It's not at all clear that the young bucks who have taken over for older field commanders decimated by American forces will abide by decisions from Taliban HQ. And the Haqqani network responsible for so much of the violence in Afghanistan is considered responsive only to Pakistani intelligence -- which is another problem altogether.

Can Afghans like Fatima Gailani, or the many non-Pashtuns in the country's north, live with such a negotiated solution? That's far from clear, and both liberal-minded Afghans and non-Pashtuns worry that President Hamid Karzai, with the tacit approval of the Americans, will sell them out. A Taliban that does not feel defeated, negotiating as much from a position of strength as one of weakness, may forget the lessons it has learned from 10 years in the wilderness and interpret its fidelity to Afghanistan's constitution more and more loosely over time. And the truth -- the harsh truth, as Zaeef would say -- is that the United States is willing to live with a settlement that keeps out al Qaeda and averts civil war, even if it comes at the cost of the social progress made possible by the past decade's Western presence. The Afghan people will have to stand up for themselves.

The other harsh truth is that the surge in Afghanistan -- unlike the surge in Iraq -- was unnecessary. The limited counterinsurgency strategy that Obama agreed to adopt in the fall of 2009 did not produce an Afghan government able to "build" where international forces had "cleared" and "held" territory or to command the loyalty of its citizens, and the real military gains have not been sufficient to make the Taliban lay down its arms and accept otherwise intolerable terms. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a great success, but it's simply not credible that this one act so reduced the al Qaeda threat that the United States could bring the surge to an end. It offered, rather, an excellent pretext to do so. If there is now light at the end of the tunnel, it's because the Obama administration has ratcheted its hopes and expectations ever downward. It's an irony that few could have expected in early 2009 -- that the Iraq war has been a success for Obama, and Afghanistan a failure. 

Zaeef told me that his new book is coming out in two weeks. The Pashto title translates as The Fundamental Problem of Afghanistan. I asked him what that fundamental problem was. "The Afghan people are too optimistic," he said blandly. They keep trusting foreigners -- the British, the Russians, the Americans -- and then getting betrayed. He forgot to add: and then they tear them to bits.

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Terms of Engagement

Country First

After a turbulent decade abroad, the Republican Party turns inward.

Neoconservative foreign policy is dead -- or so I infer from the first Republican presidential debate, held June 13 in New Hampshire. None of the seven candidates talked about the moral purposes of American power. Quite the contrary: Those who addressed the current bombing campaign in Libya opposed it as a distraction from "national interests." Those who talked about the war in Afghanistan spoke of getting out rather than winning. And none showed any eagerness to talk about foreign policy at all; the subject absorbed a bit under 10 percent of the two-hour debate.

How times have changed! Fifteen years ago, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." They chided the conservatives of the day for embracing a "tepid consensus" on foreign policy consisting chiefly of Kissingerian realism, and proposed in its stead President Ronald Reagan's policy of "military supremacy and moral confidence." They argued that the end of the Cold War era had left America with unrivaled power; rather than retreating from a destiny thrust upon it by history, America should accept its new role as the "benevolent global hegemon." They concluded that the United States should marshal its military, diplomatic, economic, and, yes, moral force in order not only to preserve the global order but to make it more like our own: more democratic, more committed to free markets.

Kristol and Kagan wrote that "Republicans are surely the genuine heirs to the Reagan tradition." And in the 2000 election cycle, they found their candidate in the person of Sen. John McCain, an ardent proponent of democracy promotion abroad and a champion of American intervention in the Balkans. Gov. George W. Bush, by contrast, positioned himself as the realist advocate of a foreign policy of "interests" rather than "values." The terrorist attacks of 9/11, of course, changed all that: In his 2002 national security strategy, Bush called for the United States to preserve its position of military supremacy and spoke of using that strength, as well as diplomacy, to forge "a balance of power that favors freedom." In seeking to reshape the Middle East through regime change and democracy promotion over the next few years, Bush became the leader Kristol and Kagan had sought.

In 2008, John McCain returned to don the neo-Reaganite mantle. In the first of his debates with Sen. Barack Obama, McCain positioned himself as not only a military veteran who knew how to use American power but also a moralist who believed in using force to stop genocide, was prepared to stand up for democratic Georgia against autocratic Russia, and had called for "a league of democracies" to advance the cause of liberty. (It is worth noting that Obama criticized George Bush's recklessness, but not his, or McCain's, idealism.)

And who is the John McCain of 2012? No one. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy appears to have exhausted itself after only a decade. There are two extremely large and obvious reasons for this shift. First, the policy was given a good shot, and didn't exactly work out  as planned. America wasn't greeted as a benevolent hegemon in Iraq or pretty much anywhere else, and regime change proved to be an extremely crude instrument for the shaping of a better world order. Reeling from the epic bender of the Bush years, the American public is in the midst of a foreign-policy hangover. The first question about the world from the New Hampshire audience was "Osama bin Laden is dead. We've been in Afghanistan for 10 years. Isn't it time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan?" The second was, Can't we start closing our military bases around the world? Can't we, in short, have less?

And of course the wish for less is also a consequence of the economy. The United States had a surplus to play with in the late 1990s; now it has a massive deficit, with prospects of worse. The hegemonic burden has become unaffordable. Why do we need all those bases? How can we keep spending $120 billion a year in Afghanistan? During the other 90 percent of the debate, the candidates described government spending under the Obama administration in apocalyptic terms; few of them said so, but it was plain that a foreign policy of national interests narrowly understood was also a matter of economic necessity.

Back in the 1990s, the larger neoconservative project went under the name "national greatness conservatism." Kristol, along with David Brooks and others, inveighed against the purely negative conservatism of the libertarians and in favor of the muscular activism of a Teddy Roosevelt. But eight years of Bush seems to have depleted that doctrine as well; even centrists like Gov. Mitt Romney talk about the federal government as a necessary evil. If government is a threat to our freedom and economy at home, how can we view it as a benevolent force abroad?

And this, in turn, forces a question: Are Republicans really the heirs to the Reaganite foreign-policy vision? So far, the party line on strong defense has held; that's the one part of government that's good, not bad. But how long can that giant exception last? How long, that is, before conservatives acknowledge the reality that defense spending consumes a massively larger fraction of the budget than welfare spending, foreign aid, and all the other convenient bugbears? If small-government conservatism really has decisively defeated national-greatness conservatism, then its advocates may turn against the whole apparatus of the neo-Reaganite foreign policy.

Today's conservatives seem to want to return to the party's origins -- thus the popularity of the Tea Party label. Thomas Jefferson, the first Republican president, also deeply distrusted what he called the "central" government, and opposed a standing army, a diplomatic service, and, above all, warfare, as instruments for the aggrandizement of the state and thus the diminishment of personal liberty (though he proved quite willing both to threaten and to wage war if the circumstances required it). The Republicans became the party of bellicosity only at the end of the 19th century, under Presidents William McKinley and Roosevelt, when their business base recognized the economic value of foreign conquest -- and when it had forsaken its small-government principles. When the GOP again began to define itself against activist government, as it did in the face of the New Deal, its partisans also turned decisively away from engagement with the world.

Maybe it's too soon to say that the Republican Party has committed itself to genuine small-government conservatism: Certainly Romney and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the most politically seasoned of the current candidates and the ones most likely to be nominated, favor increasing the defense budget even as they cut everything else to ribbons. Kristol has half-seriously suggested a ticket of Rep. Paul Ryan, the zealous budget-cutter, and Marco Rubio, the freshman Florida senator, who apparently favors "more decisive action in Libya." But the contradiction between seeking the smallest and least active federal government possible, and a muscular foreign policy can't be sustained over time. That's why the GOP has traditionally embraced one or the other, but not both.

Is it the Democrats, then, who are the natural heirs to the doctrine of benevolent global hegemony? Probably not, if only because the hegemonic era is now behind us, presumably forever. In part for that very reason, and partly also in reaction to Bush's unilateralism, this administration is prepared to lead, if not from behind, then at least from the side, giving both authority and responsibility to allies. The Obama national security strategy does not insist upon unrivaled military superiority. And Obama is a cautious figure, acutely aware of the limits of the possible. So no, today's Democratic Party will probably not become the home for disappointed foreign-policy neoconservatives.

But the Democrats do believe in government -- maybe too much. They believe that government serves deeply moral purposes. And they believe that the same government that has an obligation to help people at home has an obligation to do so elsewhere in the world as well.

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