While the majority of Afghans want a negotiated solution to the present conflict, the outgoing Bush administration seems to see negotiations only as a tactic to weaken the enemy. At the same time, the incoming Obama administration seems to be turning against the idea of holding next year’s Afghan presidential elections.
As pointed out in previous PNs, a September 2007 poll found 74% of people in Afghanistan favoured negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban, and 54% supported the formation of a coalition government including the Taliban.
Since the last PN, a two-day assembly of Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders has been held in Pakistan, which agreed to set up a committee to open dialogue with the Taliban.
The phrase “negotiating with the Taliban” is currently being used in at least three different senses.
The Afghan-Pakistani elders’ initiative appears to be based on the idea of negotiations as a way of ending the war by agreement rather than by the victory of one side.
The official US-UK position is one of “negotiations-as-surrender”: they say they are willing to talk to anyone who is willing to capitulate.
The third position is to see negotiations as a war-fighting strategy. Reports in the Sunday Telegraph (2 November) and the Telegraph (29 October) strongly indicate that this is the US approach to talks.
A classified White House review of strategy instructs US negotiators to participate in talks between the Afghan central government and junior and mid-level Taliban commanders – but emphatically not with the senior Taliban leadership. “We’ll never be at the table with Mullah Omar,” one US official told the Wall Street Journal.
This will be, in the words of the Telegraph, “less an attempt to come up with a grand deal, and more an effort to split and demoralise the enemy.” The US will attempt to “drive wedges” between different parts of the Taliban, “peeling off” the less committed to isolate the hard core.
In other words, talking can be used to weaken the enemy, and carried on at the same time as fighting. Jaw-jaw and war-war at the same time.
As we noted in the last PN, behind the scenes – and contrary to its official policy – Britain seems to have been supporting some form of negotiations with Taliban leadership, in sharp contrast to the US approach.
Say no to no say
The claim that we are “support[ing] a democratically-elected Afghan government” (David Miliband, July 2007) has long been a key propaganda point for the US and Britain (though the reality has been somewhat more murky, with widespread intimidation by warlords in 2004 and 2005, and significantly more “registered voters” than eligible voters in the 2004 presidential elections).
Now the Washington Post (11 November) reports recent conversations “with several Obama advisers and a number of senior military strategists” both before and after the 4 November US presidential election which reveal a shared sense that the Bush administration has been hampered by “ideological and diplomatic constraints” and “an unrealistic commitment to the goal of building a modern democracy.”
What is needed, the Obama team and the US military leadership seem to agree is merely “a stable nation that rejects al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism and does not threaten US interests.” Stability, not democracy.
A senior Nato figure in Kabul has confirmed that there might be a grand loya jirga, or national council next year instead of, “or at the same time as”, a popular election.
The traditional gathering of Afghan tribal bosses and power brokers could, in effect, overrule the constitution and simply select a new president by itself.
Another Nato official said the present president, Hamid Karzai, who is deeply unpopular, would prefer such an outcome, which would avoid “that whole messy business of democracy” and return him to power.
As noted last issue, Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan has allegedly mooted (in private) the desirability of installing “an acceptable dictator” in Afghanistan within 5-10 years.