"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."


April 5, 2012

We've said it before and we'll say it again:  Enough is enough. The longest war in American history has also become the most absurd.  It's time to bring it to an end by negotiating a settlement with the more moderate Taliban groups in Afghanistan.

Ahmed Rashid told the BBC on Mar. 28, 2012: "Obviously things are deteriorating very fast in Afghanistan.  It's not entirely his [Obama's] fault, but where he should be pulling out all the stops is in these negotiations with the Taliban.  These negotiations have been going terribly slowly, the president seems to be hedging his bets here in case he gets too much Republican criticism that he is soft on terrorism" (Mark Mardell, "Afghanistan, the Election, and the End Game," BBC, March 29, 2012). Rashid, 64, knows more about the Taliban than just about anybody.  A Cambridge-educated Pakistani rebel turned journalist, he has established himself as the most insightful expert writing about the current cycle of wars in Central Asia in books like Taliban (Yale University Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2010), Jihad (Yale University Press, 2002), Descent into Chaos (Viking, 2008; rev. ed. 2009), and now Pakistan on the Brink (Viking, 2012).

Not everyone agrees, of course. On Feb. 9, the Wall Street Journal groused that "Washington's olive branch to the Taliban—no matter the excuses or justifications—amounts to the management of failure, not the mark of victory.  Negotiating with the Taliban after more than 10 years of fighting means giving legitimacy and space to militant extremism."

Well, it's easy to criticize Barack Obama, and the Wall Street Journal represents interests that are making a lot of money out of the disaster in Afghanistan.  Let's recall what President Obama is up against in trying to draw down the war in Afghanistan.

According to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars (published by Simon & Schuster in 2010 and the source of the following account), two weeks after Obama was elected and two months before he was inaugurated, he told Adm. Mike Mullen:  "I want to get Afghanistan and Pakistan right . . . but I don't want to build a Jeffersonian democracy."  However, Obama had to deal with a politically ambitious and popular general who had just been installed as the leader of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus.  A savvy infighter, it is largely due to Petraeus's political skills that Obama was maneuvered into supporting his policy of "surging" troops in Afghanistan.  In essence, a president aware of his weak credentials in the national security area found himself constrained by the impetus of the American war machine . He kept on Robert Gates as secretary of defense and was faced with a military establishment intent on revving up the war in Afghanistan.  Obama may have been elected to lead the federal government, but it's the national security establishment that controls the state, and Obama's conduct in office leaves no doubt that he understands this.

In July 2009 Gates succeeded in changing the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from "disrupting" to "defeating" the Taliban, and the newly confirmed Afghanistan commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, soon let him know he wanted 40,000 more troops for this purpose.  Obama spent much of the fall of 2009 wrestling with U.S. military leaders over strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Even as Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Gen. McChrystal, with support from Republicans in and out of Congress, undertook an often insubordinate public campaign in favor of an aggressive counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan, Obama, who had in the meantime lost confidence in the military man he had installed as his new national security advisor, Gen. James L. Jones, made a valiant but only partially successful attempt to sideline them while he conducted a deeper review of the situation.  Ironically, it was when Obama was in the thick of this fight that it was announced in Stockholm that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

"I want an exit strategy," Obama insisted in late October 2009, but Obama's position was weakened inside the administration when his former rival, Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, supported McChrystal's recommendation for 40,000 more troops.  It was at that this time, in the early morning hours of Oct. 29, 2009, that Obama went to Dover AFB to attend the arrival of the bodies of eighteen American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, as though to steel his will to resist recommendations for escalation.

In November, Obama insisted again and again that he wanted his military leaders to present him with another option.  They refused.  Obama, however, felt unable to break publicly with them. In the end, he decided to send an additional 30,000 troops, insisting that this number was a "hard cap."  The Pentagon, though, kept trying to rewrite the six-page "terms sheet" ordering the escalation.  Things reached a point where a colonel who was an Iraq war veteran told Obama, on Nov. 28, 2009:  "Mr. President, I don't see how you can defy your military chain here."

The president spent the Thanksgiving Day weekend in 2009 personally dictating the five single-spaced pages of orders for his "hard-and-fast 30,000-troop surge."  Vice President Joe Biden, who had been encouraging Obama throughout to resist the military brass, believed the president had sunk the "expansive counterinsurgency" strategy, but Gen. Petraeus believed otherwise.

After the president announced his strategy in a Dec. 1, 2009, speech at West Point, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, and David Petraeus in their public remarks chipped away at the significance of the July 2011 date for the beginning of a drawdown of American forces.  Gates went so far as to tell Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a dinner on May 10, 2010:  "We're not leaving Afghanistan prematurely.  In fact, we're not ever leaving at all."  No wonder a few months later Gen. McChrystal felt free to allow disrespectful remarks about Obama to be published in Rolling Stone.  But he had miscalculated, and was sacked.

In the end, then, it was the militarism of the politically dominant national security state apparatus that forced Obama to undertake an eighteen-month surge.  Why?  "Just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn't be done," said Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute of the National Security Council staff.

That it can't be done is now apparent to all.  The American public is not a terribly attentive bunch, but polls show that 70% of them can now read the handwriting on the wall.

There are still diehards.  There's the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and there are warmongering senators like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, who argued last week for further American efforts toward "success in Afghanistan."  Writing in the Washington Post on Mar. 22, they said that "it is critical that President Obama resist the shortsighted calls for additional troop reductions, which would guarantee failure" ("Sustaining Success in Afghanistan").  Mitt Romney said in January:  "The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers" (Deborah Charles, "Romney says U.S. should not negotiate with Taliban," Reuters, Jan. 16, 2012).  With an attitude like Romney's, the U.S. would still be fighting in Vietnam.  These are the same old tired voices giving the same bad advice.

More disturbing was a report issued late last month by the International Crisis Group, which said that "U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban to date have failed and risk further destabilizing the country and the region, and as a result we call for the U.N. Secretary General to intervene and appoint a team of negotiators" (Jack Kimball, "U.S. negotiation efforts with Taliban have failed: group," [ ] Reuters, Mar. 25, 2012).  Their view is that the Koran-burning scandal in February and the March 11 massacre of Afghan civilians near Kandahar have increased the "incentives for spoilers . . . who now recognize that the international community's most urgent priority is to exit Afghanistan with or without a settlement. . . . It's going to be very difficult for the United States to both facilitate a solution and also be a party to the solution."

Well, we never said it was going to be easy.  But the notion that we can't talk because things are going badly is nonsense.  According to Thomas H. Johnson, the director of the Program for Culture and Conflict at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, "Historically, Pashtuns (who constitute the core Taliban constituency) have negotiated only when they perceive themselves in a position of strength" ("Six Experts on Negotiating with the Taliban," Council on Foreign Relations, March 20, 2009).  Now may be a perfect time to negotiate.

Enough is enough. The longest war in American history has also become the most absurd. It's time to bring it to an end by negotiating a settlement with the Taliban.


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."