Talking with the Taliban?

Today's Washington Post has a lengthy article reporting on high-level talks between the Karzai government in Afghanistan and the Taliban over a negotiated end to the war. It is impossible to know how serious the effort is or what the prospects for success are, in part because all of the parties appear to be insisting that the talks are preliminary and saying very little about what's on the table (to give themselves an easy way out if the talks don't go well).

The thrust of the Post piece is that most (if not all) of the contending parties are beginning to realize that a decisive victory is not going to be won by force of arms. It is perhaps significant the talks do not include representative of the Haqqani network, which may be why the Obama administration has been going after it with particular energy in recent weeks. 

In any case, I think this is an encouraging sign. The first recommendation of the Afghanistan Study Group in which I participated was "Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation," and I'm glad to see several key actors behaving in ways that are consistent with that recommendation. If the Karzai government, the Taliban leadership, and various members of ISAF are moving in that direction, there's a chance that the United States and its allies will get out of there sometime before 2020, and maybe some chance that Afghanistan can revert to its previous status as largely neutral and not very important strategic backwater.  

The United States and others would still have to keep an eye on the area for counter-terrorism purposes, but we'd be out of the costly and counterproductive business of nation-building. Given the other items that we really ought to be addressing, that would be a good thing. So I will keep my fingers crossed that these talks are serious and that they eventually succeed.

Stephen M. Walt

Think globally, act locally

When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca Stone) is also a member of Brookline's "Town Meeting." A Town Meeting is a venerable New England institution; in our case, it is a 250-person body of elected representatives that debates and approves major town initiatives.  

But sometimes our concerns overlap. A month or so ago, when the Park 51 controversy was stoking the growing fires of xenophobia and nativist prejudice, my response was to write a few blog posts about the issue. Big deal. But she decided to do something more concrete. Specifically, she drafted and sponsored a "warrant article" to be considered and voted upon at the next Town Meeting. Her proposal would amend the town's by-laws and give permanent legal residents ("green card holders") the right to vote in local (i.e., town-wide) elections.

You can read all about it here.

Notice that this proposal is not about giving the right to vote to undocumented aliens, tourists, or temporary visa holders. Nor would it permit green card holders to vote in state-wide or national elections or to run for office. Rather, it is about a single town giving people who are permanent legal residents (the vast majority of whom are taxpayers, including property taxes), the opportunity to participate in local elections only. Most permanent legal residents eventually become naturalized citizens after the requisite waiting period, and permitting them to vote in local elections is also a way to encourage greater civic participation. 

Equally important, it is a way to signal that America remains a country that welcomes people from overseas. It reminds us that we are a country whose very existence, past achievements, and future prospects rest on attracting and integrating future citizens from all over the world. Money quotation:

"A number of legal immigrants pay property taxes and send their children to public schools in Brookline, Stone said, and she believes allowing them to vote in local elections is a way to honor their commitment to the community.

"It may sound schmaltzy, but that's why I did it,'' said Stone, who is also an elected Town Meeting member. "I just got tired of complaining about what everybody else was saying. I figured it's a small thing to do. It's a small gesture. But it's a step in the right direction.''

There are also ample historical precedents for this arrangement. The Constitution is silent on this issue, but the Federal government has long given states and local communities the right to determine suffrage over state and local elections, and over forty different states permitted various forms of local non-citizen voting between 1776 and 1926. Both New York and Chicago have allowed permanent legal residents to vote in local elections as well, as have many other communities.

Massachusetts is a "home rule" state, which means that if the warrant article passes, then the town must petition the State legislature for final approval. Previous petitions from other communities have not been acted upon (if you know anything about the legislature here, that won't surprise you), but a number of other communities are considering similar measures and we may be seeing a turn of the tide. 

In any case, the next time you hear about Newt Gingrich or some other fear-mongering blowhard trying to makes us more suspicious of anyone born elsewhere, be aware that there are other Americans working, in their own communities, to counter such poisonous attitudes. And needless to say, I couldn't be prouder.

John Moore/Getty Images