Mixed messages

IssueMay 2011
News by Gabriel Carlyle

“[W]e must talk to the Taliban. Without that, we will leave a broken country. Our present strategy, says one official who has been at the heart of it, “is all a big, big lie”” - Guardian columnist Julian Glover.

Following “extensive interviews in Washington with many of the key players involved in Afghan policy”, renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recently reported that the US is “preparing for extensive diplomatic initiatives in the next few months to take the fledgling peace process forward and push to broker an end to the war”.

A small number of US forces are scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan this July and, according to Rashid, US president Barack Obama may then make “a first public admission that the US is talking to the Taliban”, followed by the latter being present as “full partners” at the next big international conference on Afghanistan, which will take place in Bonn this December.

Majority support

Negotiating with the Taliban – whose leadership “has indicated its willingness to negotiate” (see PN 2530) - has long commanded majority support in both Britain and Afghanistan. To date the US has rejected this option, instead escalating the war to disastrous effect (see PN 2527). Are things really shifting now? Rashid cites two recent developments.

First, Washington’s recent coded announcement that its “red lines” for talks with the Taliban (that they renounce violence, abandon their alliance with al-Qaida, and abide by the Afghan constitution) were no longer to be regarded as preconditions, but were now simply “necessary outcomes of any negotiation”.

Second, the Obama adminstration’s acceptance of a Taliban request to open a political office, probably in one of the Gulf states. The latter, Rashid notes, would allow direct talks to take place between the US and the Taliban, something the Taliban have specifically requested.

Great Game 3.0

However, a third development casts grave doubts on US intentions. In March, the US began negotiations on a “strategic partnership declaration” with the Afghan government. This would allow the US to maintain long-term military bases in the country after NATO ends its “combat mission” there in 2014.

Harking back to the rivalry between Britain and Russia in nineteenth century central Asia (“the great game”), critics have branded this latest move “Great Game 3.0”. A recent report by US foreign policy establishment heavyweights Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas Pickering notes that the withdrawal of foreign forces “is the key demand of the insurgency, and the withdrawal of [these forces]... and particularly US troops... will almost certainly be an essential component of [any] settlement.”

Consequently it’s hard not to interpret these negotiations on long-term basing rights as anything other than a deliberate spoiler.

The fear, as analyst Thomas Ruttig notes, is that the US is really looking to replicate its “successful” partial withdrawal in Iraq, where “the fighting continues, [but] not much of it will appear on US newspaper front pages anymore.” (Ruttig served as political adviser to the German embassy in Kabul between 2004 and 2006.)