Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

What on earth was Barack Obama thinking of when his people were negotiating terms for meetings with the Taliban in Doha? Talk about tossing out the baby with the bath water! 

There were only two good reasons for the U.S. to invade Afghanistan, reasons which made sense to all in the U.S. and elsewhere who were horrified by the events of 9/11 in New York City.  Those objectives were (1) eliminating Al Qaeda as a force in world affairs and (2) neutralizing  mastermind Osama bin Laden, who had been befriended by the Taliban regime in Kabul. 

A related mission was always impossible: not merely depoosing and punishing but destroying the Taliban who, as Afghans, have a huge recruitment pool and enjoy considerable residual sympathy as Afghans fighting foreigners.  (Pakistan also has a Taliban element, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Bin Laden, happily, will scheme no more.  However, the resilient, hard-fighting Taliban have yet to renounce ties to a diminished but still murderous Al Qaeda.  Surely the fulfillment of this  minimal U.S. demand, however well-hedged by Taliban hard-liners, should precede the formal opening of peace talks, if they are truly to be negotiations.  

The Other Preconditions

As for the dropping of the other preconditions, an argument can be made for some flexibility in the matter of whether the  current Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan must be retained in every detail.  Few Constitutions are perfect.  But burying a concern for women’s rights is a very bad idea, unless the U.S. is already preparing to grant instant immigrant visas to the tens of thousands of Afghan women who have, with American encouragement and support,  made themselves into targets for assassination by getting educated and taking up visible leadership roles  over the past few years.  Women were better off under the Russians than they were under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They can expect no better under a new Taliban dispensation.

Flags Mean Something

The nature of that future, should the Taliban control it, was made conveniently clear when the familiar flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was hoisted over the Taliban’s Doha offices as if to mark an embassy.  Sadly unaware of the symbolism, or for some reason ignoring it, the U.S. seems to have been willing to talk with the Taliban under decidedly triumphalist  auspices. Hamid Karzai, bless him despite myriad venialities, was not.  Even U.S. “ally” Pakistan, which aids theAfghan Taliban in hopes of keeping Afghanistan out of India’s sphere of influence, was forced to state publicly that the sole legitimate government of its northern neighbor is a republic, not an emirate.  As for India, here’s a statement from a Foreign Ministry spokesman insisting that the talks maintain a distinction between an internationally recognized government and an insurgency:

“The reconciliation process should not confer legitimacy to insurgent groups or convey the impression of two competing state authorities for Afghanistan, which could undermine the legitimate Afghan state, Afghan government and the political, social and economic progress witnessed in Afghanistan over the past decade….India has always called for a broad-based Afghan-led, Afghan–owned and Afghan-controlled reconciliation process, within the framework of the Afghan Constitution.”

India is also unhappy that the now-suspended Taliban talks may include the border-straddling Haqqani network, which was responsible for an attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and is more or less supported by Pakistan’s intelligence service. 

No doubt U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will have to put in a good amoount of time discussing concerns re Afghanistan when he is in New Delhi this coming week, probably not a welcome addition to an already crowded agenda.

Meanwhile, peace talks in the offing or not, Taliban elements continue to kill American soldiers.  Shouldn’t an effective ceasefire be the most important precondition for negotiations?  No one unconnected with Islamist extremist circles would condemn the U.S. for insisting on that.  Does this indicate that the U.S. position is too weak to make any demands at all?

Negotiation or Capitulation?

I do not wish to discuss the content of President Obama’s budget negotiations with Republicans in Congress, but his approach to the Doha conversations seems all too redolent of  his tendency  to capitulate even before talks begin.  In such cases, agreements are little more than fig leaves not quite covering the fact that the whole store has already been given away. 

In this case, however, what seems poorly handled on the surface may actually be an endgame in which the administration admits defeat and hands the country over to the Taliban.  Whether or not this is so, prematurely groveling in public before an unrepentant Taliban is a terrible way to go.  Don’t broadcast preconditions if you intend to abandon them with nothing in return before the talks begin.

Some Lamb Kebabs, Please 

So, just in case, ready those visas for Afghan  women in flight, and look at the bright side.  U.S. cities will be sprouting lots of good Afghan restaurants run by people we expected to be running a government in Kabul.

Post Script

If my hunch re a scampering U.S. seems too far out, take a look at this bit from an editorial entitled “Kerry’s Visit.” It appeared in the Times of India for June 23, the morning after the first posting of the above:

“Under no circumstances should the negotiations be used simply to hand over power to the Taliban and run.  The Obama administration appears to be in a hurry to cut a deal with the insurgents and leave Afghanistan to its fate.  Such a strategy would embolden jihadi groups and be disastrous for the stability of South Asia as a whole.  It would, among other things, endanger the India-Pakistan peace process and Washiington would bear responsibility for the consequences.”

Post Post Script

I extract from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on the “U.S.-India Strategic Partnership” in New Delhi yesterday:

“And let me be clear: Any political settlement must result, in our judgment, in the Taliban breaking ties with al-Qaida; renouncing violence; and accepting the Afghan constitution, including its protection for all Afghans, women and men. Afghanistan cannot again become a safe haven for international terrorism, and we are committed to an ongoing force level in the region, with the consent of the Afghan Government, that will continue to conduct counterterrorism to protect all of us from that scourge.”

So are there preconditions for talks or not?  The words seem to change from audience to audience.  In this case, Kerry was clearly saying what India wants to hear.