Peace Out

What the Taliban flag debacle tells us about America's reluctance to negotiate an end to the Afghan war. 

The formal opening last week of a Taliban office in Qatar has achieved the exact opposite of what it was supposed to -- delaying the start of negotiations with the United States and Afghan government, and sending the peace process into a downward spiral. Standing in front of a white banner emblazoned with the name of the past Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and next to the flag that flew during the Taliban's rule, two spokesmen for the organization held forth on its desire to improve relations with "all the countries of the world," the United Nations, and NGOs, and to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict. The spokesmen also mentioned holding talks with Afghans -- though not the Afghan government -- and said that attacks on other countries would not be allowed from Afghan soil, an indirect reference to severing links with al Qaeda.

Details such as the flag, the name, and a small plaque outside of the office labeled the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," signaled to the world that what the Taliban seek more than peace talks is a share of power in Kabul. The Taliban have presented themselves audaciously, not in the manner of a dwindling or threatened insurgent group, but as a legitimate government in exile. This thoroughly -- and justifiably -- infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who, in an attempt to re-assert control over the peace process, promptly called off negotiations with the United States over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) only hours after commemorating the official handover of security from NATO forces to the Afghan National Army (ANA). The BSA negotiations will almost certainly resume -- in no small part because the agreement ensures continued U.S. financial support for the ANA post-2014 -- but for the time being at least, Karzai is using them to prove a point.

Amazingly, it appears that the details of the Taliban's office launch that so thoroughly enraged Karzai may have been lost on the Americans. Within hours of the Taliban press conference, senior White House officials told reporters that they would be holding talks at the Doha office in a matter of days. President Barack Obama's administration, it seems, never considered that Karzai might perceive this as tacit approval of the Taliban's presentation -- in effect, marginalizing the Afghan government from its own peace process. As a result, Karzai's unexpected reaction sent Washington scrambling to walk back its commitments, with the State Department denying that talks had ever been confirmed. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed doubt over whether the talks could proceed, and said the office may need to be shut down.

The dog continues to chase his tail. Since Tuesday, the media has struggled to keep reports up to date about the status of the flagpole, which was first lowered and then removed; the whereabouts of the plaque, which was moved from outside to inside; and who is responsible for the mishap in the first place, with American officials claiming the Taliban violated a prior agreement that the Taliban says never existed.

After more than a year of talking about talks, the so-called peace process has devolved into little more than political theater, with flags and plaques providing the requisite doses of tragicomedy. But the real cost of such diversions is counted in battlefield deaths. As the process drags on, it obscures the urgent need for substantive talks aimed at ending a 12-year conflict that has claimed several thousands of innocent Afghan lives, the lives of over 3,000 coalition troops, and billions upon billions of dollars. Above all else, Afghans desperately need security -- something that can only start to be achieved through constructive peace talks between the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban.

Still, the prospects for peace remain dim. In an interview with Al Jazeera on June 19, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen clearly stated that the Taliban will continue to pursue its military campaign, even as it entertains the idea of peace talks. That same day, Taliban rockets killed four NATO soldiers at Bagram Airfield, located just north of Kabul. While the press and commentators have been quick to criticize the Taliban for this contradiction, the United States is, ironically, pursuing the exact same strategy. Earlier this week, Obama reiterated that the United States will "remain fully committed to our military efforts" and that peace talks will be pursued "in parallel with our military approach." Both sides are playing the same double game -- one that makes a mockery of the peace process and leaves Afghans dodging bullets in the crossfire.

This is not the first time that the opportunity for a more peaceful route in Afghanistan has taken a backseat to political optics. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration flatly ruled out the possibility of talks with the Taliban about handing over Osama bin Laden, despite repeated offers from Taliban officials. Instead, it opted for what it thought would be a swift and decisive defeat of the militant organization. Granted, it may have been hard to imagine the United States seriously pursuing talks with the Taliban with the shock of the September 11th attacks only barely in the rearview mirror. But now, 12 years later, it is equally hard to imagine a decisive American victory.

And now, the Taliban appear to have the upper hand entering any peace talks with the United States and Afghan government. The United States is desperate to exit the war as soon as possible, and has apparently realized peace talks are the only viable option. Karzai, meanwhile, is desperate to leave office in 2014 with a legacy that features securing some level of peace for his country. Only the Taliban are able to carry on indefinitely at little political or military cost. The organization's limited resources and manpower have not hampered its ability to inflict massive damage on its enemies in the past, and are unlikely to be a limiting factor going forward. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, guerrilla warfare is the death of a thousand cuts. 

Today, Karzai's frustration at being marginalized at the negotiating table is representative of the general dearth of Afghan voices shaping the future of the country. To date, these voices have been muffled or silenced by more powerful forces concerned with matters of domestic politics, be they legacy, power, or the desire to gracefully exit a botched war with honor intact. And while no party is willing to make concessions in order to pursue meaningful and constructive peace talks, they all claim to be fully committed to the peace process. There are perhaps no winners in this war, but the undeniable losers for over a decade have been, and will continue to be, the Afghan people.



A Bolivarian Dream Deferred

The Latin American left is back in the news thanks to the Edward Snowden saga, but the movement still hasn't found a leader to replace Hugo Chávez.

Hugo Chávez would have loved the Edward Snowden affair: a man on the run from U.S. authorities, taking aim at the supposed hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy, driving a wedge between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, and enlisting the help of a group of leftist Latin American governments rumored to include Venezuela, Cuba, and Ecuador as he seeks sanctuary. One can almost hear the gleeful thunderous speech the late Venezuelan president would be delivering on his regular television program, Aló Presidente, needling the forces of global imperialism, naturally punctuated by bursts of song.

But this moment in the spotlight for the leftist governments of Latin America comes at an awkward time. After nearly a decade and a half of Chavez's grand ambitions to build regional solidarity in opposition to U.S. influence in the region, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, seems far too preoccupied with domestic crises to make major forays onto the world stage.

Whether you loved or hated the late Venezuelan leader, it has become readily apparent that Maduro is no Chávez. Few dispute that Venezuela's strongman for 14 years, who died of cancer on March 5, was a towering figure with rare charisma and political genius. Maduro, Chávez's chosen successor, cannot remotely match his mentor's capacity to rule.

But Maduro, who just began a six-year term as president after a dubious election on April 14, has performed even more clumsily than expected. His floundering first weeks in office -- he has, for example, repeatedly accused the United States of orchestrating elaborate plots to poison him while simultaneously insisting he wants to normalize relations -- has been surprising. After all, though Chávez had always made all decisions, Maduro wasn't entirely bereft of governing experience, having served as president of the National Assembly before becoming foreign minister and then vice president. Still, it did not help that Maduro inherited a disastrous economy (epitomized by severe shortages of toilet paper) and a riven coalition that only Chávez could hold together. As ineffectual as Maduro looks at home, however, the contrasts between the two leaders are even more striking in foreign policy.

From the outset of his rule, Chávez was propelled by a grandiose vision. He energetically pursued a "Bolivarian" (named after South America's 19th-century independence hero and pan-Americanist, Simón Bolívar) project that sought to foster solidarity throughout Latin America and curtail the influence of the United States in the region and the world. He built a coalition of ideological soul mates, reflected in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Chávez also generously underwrote Petrocaribe, a robust program of cooperation that provided oil at discounted rates to some 18 energy-poor countries in the Caribbean and Central America.

True, some of Chávez's dreams were wildly unrealistic and never materialized. Having lost his favorite foils in the United States (George W. Bush) and Colombia (Álvaro Uribe) and being thrown off balance by a rising Brazil that offered a far more internationally palatable leftist model under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Chávez's regional momentum had slowed considerably in recent years. Still, Chávez, then riding an oil boom, was on the offensive; the notably less simpático Maduro is now concentrating on defense, invoking intemperate language to make sure governments understand they will pay a price should they cross him. And though, like his predecessor, Maduro has made a nod to South American solidarity -- he recently declared the 21st century the century of regional "unity" -- such rhetoric has had a hollow ring.

 Venezuela's deepening domestic crises compound Maduro's ineptitude to make it virtually impossible for him to stride the regional -- not to mention global -- stage, as Chávez had done so naturally and with such aplomb for many years. Although Maduro has tried to emulate the Chávez playbook and engage in aggressive and confrontational diplomacy, the result has been, in the words of Venezuelan newspaper editor and intellectual Teodoro Petkoff, a "sad caricature" of the deceased leader. What Petkoff dubbed Venezuela's "scoundrel diplomacy" -- the coarse, anti-U.S. posturing that Chávez had mastered -- has been far less productive under Maduro, who seems chiefly interested in holding onto power.

Latin American governments are acutely aware of and worried about the continued economic deterioration, criminal violence, and political unraveling in Venezuela. (In 2012, the capital, Caracas, registered more murders than any other city in the world.) Regional leaders also know that Maduro's political position under such circumstances is precarious. An audiotape of a conversation between a Chavista hard-liner and a Cuban intelligence officer was recently released, revealing internecine fights within the late president's ruling coalition of Socialists. The tape exposes palace intrigue in Caracas and a fierce power struggle within the government's ranks, including discussion of a possible coup against Maduro by his longtime rival, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.

The episode was another reminder of the privileged access and influence Cuba has enjoyed in Venezuelan politics since Chávez came to power. The island receives an estimated subsidy of $4 billion to $5 billion annually through discounted oil and has vigorously backed Maduro, who is close to the Cuban regime. In exchange for these subsidies, Cuba provides Venezuela with medical and security support and has effectively operated as a proxy for PDVSA, Venezuela's national oil company, to conduct financial transactions with little oversight.

Still, though the governments of Cuba, along with those of ALBA members Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia, cheered when Maduro was officially declared the winner of the April 14 election, they can hardly be reassured by his shaky political position in Venezuela. They know that given the depth of the economic crisis, Venezuela's generous oil-backed aid cannot continue indefinitely.

Yet, curiously and unfortunately, for a combination of economic, geopolitical, and ideological reasons, even those governments not ideologically aligned to Venezuela have been unwilling to risk antagonizing the debilitated Maduro. The Venezuelan opposition has appealed to the region's governments to apply pressure on Maduro to conduct a serious recount of the April 14 election, which, according to official figures, Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.5 percentage points. Neighboring heads of state have not, however, been responsive to these calls. Latin American governments even remained silent in the face of physical violence against some opposition lawmakers on April 30.

Regional groupings have been similarly indifferent. Following the Venezuelan election, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a continentwide political forum created in 2008, plainly sided with Maduro and rushed to recognize his government. Although several UNASUR members also asked for a recount, the group has been extremely passive and shown little if any interest in pressing Caracas for a review of the contested vote. In backing Maduro, UNASUR is overlooking Venezuela's domestic legitimacy crisis, which will make it that much harder for the country's profound problems to be effectively addressed.

The Organization of American States (OAS), the Western Hemisphere's long-established multilateral body, has also been characterized by inaction regarding the Venezuelan situation. While OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza did take a stand in calling for an audit of the election, member governments were unwilling to back him up. It was regarded as an internal question, rather than a matter of hemispheric concern. Yet, it is striking that even though Venezuela is arguably the most troubling and volatile situation on the continent for regional peace and democracy, it was not seen as justifying a place on the agenda at the OAS General Assembly meeting in Guatemala on June 5. Among the OAS's chief purposes is serving as watchdog and defender for democracy in the hemisphere -- it took action most recently after events in Honduras in 2009 and Paraguay in 2012 -- but Venezuela was excluded from the plenary meeting. No member state wanted to take on Maduro.

One litmus test for the region's reaction to Maduro has been the Latin American tour undertaken by his vanquished election opponent, Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state. Since the vote, Capriles has been traveling throughout the region, seeking to obtain support -- or at least recognition of -- the seriousness of his charges of electoral fraud. He just announced that he will soon travel to Peru, Chile, Brazil, and probably Mexico, and he has said that a visit to Washington lies "on the horizon." Capriles, who deserves credit for forcing the issue, has already put some regional leaders in tough spots. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose chief priority is ending his country's half-century-old armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), received Capriles at the presidential palace on May 29 in a low-profile meeting. The Venezuelan government, which had long provided support to the FARC, has been a key player in the peace talks under way in Havana.

Santos probably calculated that though a meeting with Capriles might risk some strain with Maduro, it would also help neutralize the unremitting flak he is getting from the right (led by former President Uribe) for trusting the FARC and the Venezuelans. Maduro was indeed incensed by the Santos-Capriles meeting and threatened to withdraw support from the peace process. Santos initially characterized Maduro's reaction as "crazy," but then backed off and chalked up the rising tension to a "misunderstanding." Still, Santos, who was the first regional leader to recognize Maduro, showed some backbone in receiving Capriles. Although relations between Bogotá and Caracas now seem back on track, this episode revealed the lingering mistrust between the two Andean governments. And Maduro's warning to the rest of the region not to question his legitimacy was clear.

Things have been even more awkward in Peru. Capriles's previously scheduled visit to the country on June 4 posed a quandary for President Ollanta Humala. Although the onetime leader of a military revolt had received support from Chávez for his 2006 presidential bid, in his successful 2011 campaign Humala had distanced himself from the Venezuelans and had identified with Lula's more moderate brand of leftism. In his two years as president, Humala has broken with the left and, whether because of convenience or conviction, has embraced free market economics. Yet, the prospect of meeting with Capriles -- and thus provoking Maduro's ire -- created discomfort for the Peruvian president. The visit was postponed. Tellingly, Capriles has since declared that in future visits to the region he will no longer insist on being received by presidents.

Maduro has also sought to shore up support abroad. He has made several regional visits since being elected and even traveled to Europe, where he met with Pope Francis and several heads of state. On balance, these meetings have succeeded in securing political backing.

As South America's regional power and arguably the country with the greatest leverage on developments in Venezuela, Brazil's posture is critical. The left-leaning government of Dilma Rousseff is mainly concerned with maintaining stability on its borders and, of course, protecting its considerable trade surplus with Venezuela. Although media accounts vary, it appears that Rousseff received Maduro cordially and properly following his election in April, but was apparently cooler and more restrained than, say, her Argentine and Uruguayan counterparts. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who had been particularly close to Chávez, received Maduro warmly and with great fanfare.

Then, of course, there's the elephant in the room. For the United States, Venezuela is a matter of concern because of both the erosion of democratic safeguards and the heightened risks of chaos. Barack Obama's administration has stuck to its position in supporting Capriles's call for a full recount of the disputed election, and so far it has held off from recognizing Maduro's victory. At the same time, Washington remains open to engaging with Caracas. During his first visit to Latin America as secretary of state this month, John Kerry met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua at the OAS meeting in Guatemala and discussed restoring ambassadorial relations, which have been suspended since 2010. Although the meeting was sharply criticized by some in the United States for legitimizing the Maduro government, the opposition itself viewed the meeting as "positive" and hopes that over time increased cooperation might help relieve Venezuela's severe predicament.

It makes sense for Venezuela to reach out to the United States, but at least in the short term, Maduro will have a tough time holding back on his strident, anti-American rhetoric. For political survival, he needs to prove his Chavista bona fides to the base that brought him to the presidency. Whatever happens abroad, Maduro will be increasingly consumed by Venezuela's staggering problems at home. Chávez left a country devoid of institutions. Instead, he bequeathed cronies like Maduro who has so far been able to fend off criticism from his neighbors but is hardly in a position to lead the kind of broad ideological movement that Chávez was able to cobble together in his glory days.

Regardless of whether Maduro can placate the rest of Latin America with his bluster and oil riches, his own country's stunning decay raises questions about how much longer his poor imitation of Chávez can carry him.