Extrication Negotiations

The United States is ready to start talking to the Taliban about a peace deal again. But nothing's going to happen without Pakistan.

Earlier this week, I talked to Salahuddin Rabbani, head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Rabbani was in Washington to brief administration officials on talks he had just held in Islamabad with Pakistani leaders. Rabbani had asked the Pakistanis to release four senior Taliban officials whom they had imprisoned, apparently for the crime of holding peace talks without Islamabad's approval. Security officials had released one of them, as well as nine lower-level figures. Afterwards, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistani's military chief of staff and ultimate authority on national security issues, had flown to Kabul to conduct further talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rabbani told me that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Pakistanis had decided to stop obstructing negotiations.

If this is as meaningful as Rabbani hopes, it would be very welcome news for President Barack Obama, who is ardently hoping to leave behind the messes he inherited in the Islamic world in order to get on with the forward-looking business of pivoting to Asia, promoting climate change, signing free-trade agreements, and so on. He has already completed Phase One of this act of strategic extrication by removing American troops from Iraq. Phase Two will be completed by the end of 2014, when American and NATO troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan. Obama and his team are now deciding just how quickly those troops should leave, and how many should be left behind in order to train and support Afghan forces and to carry out counterterrorism missions. No matter what the outcome of that debate, Obama's hopes may rest on Pakistan's calculations -- and the Taliban's.

Karzai established the High Peace Council two years ago, with the goal of reaching out to current and former militant leaders. He appointed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former jihadi leader and president of Afghanistan, as its first chairman. In September 2011, at a time when elements of the Taliban had begun talking to to American envoys in Germany and Qatar, Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber, presumably dispatched by hard-line elements seeking to sabotage the nascent talks. This past April, Karzai chose Rabbani's 41-year-old son, Salahuddin, then serving as ambassador to Turkey, to replace his father. Salahuddin, a bespectacled, soft-spoken, Westernized figure, is new to this brutal game; when we met at his hotel in Washington, he asked if I was the same James Traub who had taught his class at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs in 2008. (I was.)

Rabbani and his colleagues have had informal contacts with a range of current and former Taliban figures, and he says that he is convinced that most want to stop fighting. "The reports we have are that the Taliban leadership is now discussing the logic of continuing the military campaign," he says. Once the United States and Afghanistan signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement last May pledging a long-term U.S. role, including an ongoing military presence, Rabbani says, the Taliban concluded that they could no longer wait for the end of 2014 and then march on Kabul. Of course, that may be over-optimistic. The fighting in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating. Mullah Omar, the leader of the so-called Quetta Shura, may not bless such talks. Hardline or rogue factions, like the Haqqanis, may undermine any effort at negotiations. But it's a proposition that has to be tested. And this requires U.S. and, of course, Pakistani support.

Meanwhile, White House policy on Afghanistan has given far more emphasis to winning battlefield victories in order to force the Taliban to negotiate from a position of weakness than to ending hostilities through negotiations. U.S. talks with the Taliban ended last March when the Taliban walked out, claiming that Washington kept changing its position. U.S. diplomats, working with officials in Qatar, have tried to work out a deal to release five militants from Guantanamo in exchange for an American soldier believed to be held in Pakistan. U.S. officials made a new offer in June, and they are still waiting to hear a response from the Taliban. One figure involved with administration policy in the region says that, since the U.S. election, White House officials seem to have embraced the need for a political end-game. This may in turn effect the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. American diplomats, says this figure, "may actually take yes for an answer." Rabbani says that he received unequivocal support for his efforts from American officials. 

The real wild card is Islamabad. In 2010, Pakistani forces arrested Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's second-in-command, who had begun exploring talks with Afghans. That sent an unmistakable message: Negotiations will go forward only on Pakistan's terms. Pakistani intelligence still has deep ties with the Afghan Taliban, and wants to ensure that the country retains its influence in any reconfigured Afghanistan. Pakistan has a long history of pulling out the rug from negotiations, and this could prove to be yet another feint, designed to buy time until the battlefield odds became more favorable to the Taliban. But maybe it's not. The Taliban has become almost as dire a menace to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan; and Kayani is said to have recognized that the country's economy is in disastrous condition. Warming relations with India may also have blunted Pakistani paranoia about Indian ambitions in Central Asia.

Rabbani said that Pakistan has promised to release Mullah Baradar and the other two detainees; he is now waiting to see if they make good. Pakistani officials also vowed to sign a joint statement asking the United Nations to remove several key figures from a list of terrorists, and to permit them to travel outside the country for talks. Preliminary discussions might then take place in Doha. Any eventual deal would almost certainly involve a power-sharing arrangement which could give the Taliban political control over portions of the country's south and east, as well as impunity for the militants. That would be ugly -- especially for any woman in Taliban-dominated regions -- but it's a deal I think the United States could live with. And it would give the government in Kabul the time and breathing space to slowly extend its authority and -- who knows? -- maybe even deepen its legitimacy.

And if it all falls apart? A senior U.S. government official I spoke to insisted that Afghanistan is making a transition, however haltingly, towards economic self-sufficiency, while the Afghan Army's "capacity to fight and defend their country seems increasingly provable." Though he hopes for an Afghan-led peace deal, he says, the country should remain "politically intact" even without one. But American optimism on Afghanistan has proved to be misplaced time and time again. The effort to bring "good governance" to Afghans in Kabul and in key provinces has largely failed -- which is one reason why the Taliban could reasonably believe that they will win in the long run. A report published over the summer by the Center for Strategic and International Studies predicts that "even under optimistic conditions, insurgents will dominate important areas in the east and south, and islands in other parts of the country."

If that's true, then the argument for some kind of political deal which recognizes this reality is all the stronger. (The CSIS report asserts that this will never happen.) The American imperial venture in Afghanistan has largely failed. The nation-building effort has come to grief -- not because such things are inherently impossible, but because habits and institutions develop over generations, not months. Afghan reality has proved to be far more refractory than America's military and civilian planners ever understood. It has been a very expensive, and very painful, learning process. 


Terms of Engagement

Life Inside the Iron Dome

Why President Obama shouldn't accept Israel's policy of defensiveness and despair.

As I write, the ceasefire in Gaza has held for going on two days. Every day is likely to bring a new provocation which will test the willingness of both sides to keep their arms sheathed; the most recent is the killing of a Gazan protestor by Israeli soldiers at a border crossing. For the moment, though, we can be thankful that Israel's security cabinet agreed, by what appears to be a hairsbreadth, to accept the ceasefire terms fashioned in Cairo and pressed on them very hard by President Barack Obama.

Usually the act of contemplating the might-have-been requires a leap of speculation -- but not in this case. Part of the horror of watching the drama of the last week was the sense of an almost mechanical, and thus helpless, re-playing of past events. As in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel would follow up an extensive air assault with a ground operation designed to destroy Hamas's fighting capacity as well as the infrastructure of the state and the economy. Many innocent civilians would die, though of course the definition of "innocent" and "civilian" would be hotly disputed. Israel would be condemned for wanton destruction, and further isolated in world opinion. The United States would stand by its ally, and earn the further hatred of Arab peoples.

Actually it could have been worse this time. In 2009, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to allow journalists access to Gaza until after the fighting ended. The consequence was that when investigators for the so-called Goldstone Report sought to investigate claims that Israel had committed war crimes, they had to depend on accounts from the Palestinian victims, which Israel and its supporters naturally viewed as unreliable. This time, however, the IDF allowed journalists to cover the battlefield. I'm not sure why; maybe they thought they could win the propaganda war through Twitter. It's safe to say that they didn't succeed. The appalling imagery of bulldozers pulling masonry off of the corpses of Palestinian children killed by an Israeli airstrike inevitably overwhelmed Israel's arguments about its own security.

But that was just the air campaign. This time, as last time, a ground assault would have caused far more casualties and far more intimate destruction. In this case the world's media would have been watching, and the inevitable targeting mistakes and excesses would have been documented in real time. What's more, the parallels between Israel's assault on Gaza and Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian opposition would have been unavoidable: Israel decimates al-Shifa Hospital; Assad's forces obliterate the main hospital of Aleppo. That's bad company for Israel to be in.

Does it matter? Liberal American Jews like me may writhe over the Goldstone Report, but the Israeli leadership, and many Israelis, view the periodic denunciations as the cost of doing business. Hamas "wins" by further undermining Israel in world opinion and bringing new Arab allies to its side; but Israel doesn't actually lose, at least so long as it can count on Washington to supply it with arms and funds, and to stand by its side at moments of crisis. Israel now lives in an Iron Dome world: incoming missiles clang off its miracle shield, while America stands ready to repel any assaults on its legitimacy at the United Nations or elsewhere.

This is not a recipe for long-term security; but Israelis seem to feel that they can no longer afford to think long-term. Every few years they have to "cut the grass," with at F-16 as their scythe. As a metaphor it sounds grotesquely cynical, though what it really reflects is a policy founded on despair. There is no political solution, and neither is there a lasting military solution. The real goal of policy is to lengthen as much possible the period of time between these acts of lethal maintenance. In this respect, the ceasefire agreement may turn out to be a failure, because Hamas will be able to regroup faster than it had after Operation Cast Lead in 2009. And even if Hamas concludes -- as Hezbollah has since the 2006 Lebanon war -- that its interests are best served by husbanding its resources, one of the more radical factions in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, maybe be delighted to invite another round of Israeli grass-cutting. 

Is there any way out of this trap? The maneuvering around the ceasefire has, of course, created some tantalizing realignments. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government now has the capacity to serve as an interlocutor between Hamas and the West, as it did not before. President Barack Obama has established a relationship of trust with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy. Obama has also earned credibility with the Israeli public and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Everybody is good with everybody else -- except, of course, Israel and Hamas. Obama can probably use the good will he has earned to prevent Israel from over-reacting to the latest provocation from Gaza, and Morsy may be able to similarly keep Hamas in line. But even assuming such good fortune offers no hope for a long-term solution.

And this raises a fundamental question for U.S. policy: Should Obama try to cash in his credibility by pressing Israel to re-start negotiations with the Palestinians -- not with Hamas, of course, but with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority? Even before the war, Obama's supporters hoped that he would put Middle East peace on his to-do list for the second term. Isn't the case all the stronger now? Of course the president would have to wait until after Israel's elections, now scheduled for next January, but that still leaves plenty of time.

The problem is that the Israelis are going to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor, has talked about running as a pro-peace candidate, but the Israeli public is not interested. A recent poll found that 63 percent of Israelis had no wish to see the former prime minister make a comeback. Other candidates who share Olmert's view, like former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, have gained no more traction. Polls show that Israelis strongly favor a two-state solution; they just don't believe it's possible anytime soon.

Worse still, the sudden centrality of Hamas has weakened an already weak President Abbas. And Israel has made Abbas look weaker still by batting away his occasional olive branch. When the Palestinian leader risked the wrath of his own followers by suggesting several weeks ago that he would not insist on the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland in Israel, Israeli president Shimon Peres embraced his "brave and important public declaration," but Netanyahu waved off the remarks as unimportant.

The prudent course for Obama would thus be to focus on keeping the peace in Gaza and perhaps building up Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, and put off peace-making until a more propitious moment -- presumably when Obama is no longer President (or Netanyahu is no longer prime minister). But what would that mean? The latest war, or almost-war, in Gaza shows just how profoundly unstable the stats quo is. It's obvious that Palestinians in the West Bank will not continue to silently abide their occupied status, even with better police and hospitals. Israel will become more lonely, more embattled, more dependent on the U.S. Life inside the Iron Dome will become ever more precarious. I can't see how a peace initiative could succeed right now. But the consequences of not trying seem much worse than the consequences of trying and failing.