The central point argued in Vali Nasr’s book “The Dispensable Nation” is that for the Obama administration, diplomacy took a back seat to the military as the administration took control of the war in Afghanistan from the Bush administration. In fact, the second part of the book’s title is “American Foreign Policy in Retreat”. As the chief aide to Richard Holbrooke, whom Obama chose as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nasr puts Holbrooke on quite a pedestal in the book, and others have built a bit of a cottage industry around attacking Nasr’s version of events, but I want to concentrate just on the missed opportunity for diplomacy.
Setting aside the arguing over Holbrooke and Nasr, it is clear that Nasr has identified a fatal flaw in Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. Nasr describes a very early opening for negotiations with the Taliban that was squandered:
Around that time, in fall 2009, Holbrooke and I had a meeting with Egypt’s foreign minister. Egypt’s intelligence chief, General Abu Suleiman (who later became vice president when Mubarak fell), was also in the room. At one point he turned to Holbrooke and said, “The Taliban visited us in Cairo.” Holbrooke said, “Really, who came? Do you remember?” Abu Suleiman reached into his bag, pulled out a piece of paper, held it before his face, and read three names. The last one made us all pause. It was Tayed Agha, a relative the Taliban chief, Mulla Omar, as well as his secretary and spokesman, whom we knew to be actively probing talks with the United States on Taliban’s behalf. We knew Tayed Agha to be a player, but we did not know then that he would become America’s main Taliban interlocutor in first secret and later formal talks that began in 2011 (and were made public in February 2012).
Although Holbrooke jumped at the opportunity and presented the case to the Obama administration, they were dismissive of the idea during the critical time that they were developing and then implementing McChrystal’s vaunted surge of troops in Afghanistan. From the Foreign Policy excerpt of the book:
FROM THE OUTSET, Holbrooke argued for political reconciliation as the path out of Afghanistan. But the military thought talk of reconciliation undermined America’s commitment to fully resourced COIN. On his last trip to Afghanistan, in October 2010, Holbrooke pulled aside Petraeus, who by then had replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, and said, “David, I want to talk to you about reconciliation.” “That’s a 15-second conversation,” Petraeus replied. “No, not now.”
The commanders’ standard response was that they needed two more fighting seasons to soften up the Taliban. They were hoping to change the president’s mind on his July deadline and after that convince him to accept a “slow and shallow” (long and gradual) departure schedule. Their line was that we should fight first and talk later. Holbrooke thought we could talk and fight. Reconciliation should be the ultimate goal, and fighting the means to facilitate it.
The Obama administration did its utmost to undermine Holbrooke’s efforts on the diplomatic front during this time: Continue reading
As the US stumbles around, trying to find its way out of a country it has occupied for over ten years, the path “forward” remains as murky as ever. Just under two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was chosen as the point person for introducing the new US catchphrase “fight, talk, build” that is meant to describe US strategy in the region. As I noted at the time, the US seemed to completely miss the irony of using the country’s chief diplomat to introduce a new strategy that is based on the concept of shoot first and ask questions later.
We learn in this morning’s Washington Post that the US strategy of attacking the Haqqani network on both sides of the Pakistan border before starting serious efforts to hold talks with them has only increased the frequency of attacks from them. As the remarkable passage from the Post below illustrates, the US had to endure no fewer than five large, high profile attacks from the Haqqani network before considering the possibility that the attacks could be a return of “fight” for “fight” and an attempt to improve the Haqqani position for later negotiations rather than the laughable early suggestion from the US that by resorting to more spectacular attacks, the Haqqanis were demonstrating that they had been weakened significantly:
This official and others acknowledged that the success of the strategy, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described as “fight, talk and build,” depends on a positive outcome for several variables that currently appear headed in the wrong direction.
On Saturday, insurgents staged a suicide bomb attack in Kabul that killed at least 12 Americans, a Canadian and four Afghans. A similar truck bomb attack Monday left three United Nations employees dead in the southern city of Kandahar.
The attacks were the latest in a series of spectacular insurgent strikes that have made reconciliation seem remote. In September, the Pentagon blamed the Haqqani network for a truck bombing of a combat outpost west of Kabul that wounded 77 U.S. troops and for an assault by gunmen on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
A week after the embassy strike, a suicide bomber killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is in charge of reconciliation negotiations for the government.
U.S. officials have said they were unsure whether the attacks were a reflection of insurgent military weakness, a rejection of talks or a burst of aggression designed to improve the militants’ negotiating position — similar to the escalation of U.S. attacks on the Haqqani network.
That bit at the beginning should not be overlooked: the success of the “fight, talk, build” strategy “depends on a positive outcome for several variables that currently appear headed in the wrong direction.” Mechanisms for reversing the current direction of these variables are not presented in the article.
Meanwhile, the first in a series of “conferences” has gotten underway in Turkey, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai meeting directly with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. Parallel meetings between the two countries’ top military officers are also taking place. Clinton had been scheduled to join the conference tomorrow, but her trip was canceled yesterday, apparently because of her mother’s ill health (Update: there are reports on Twitter that Dorothy Rodham has died). It looks as though the US feels talking can wait, as no replacement for Clinton at the conference has been announced.
While the Obama administration begins to think about preparing to maybe get the Pentagon perhaps to agree to withdraw a few more troops out of Afghanistan, we see the terrain being softened a bit more for the eventual realization that all of the US efforts and investments in “training” Afghan forces are destined for failure. It appears from this article that David Petraeus, who is touted in the press as responsible for training when it is described as being successful, will escape blame for the failure in Afghanistan because William Caldwell is described in the article as having “overseen all NATO training in Afghanistan for the past two years”. In true Petraeus fashion, the slate for the previous eight years is not just wiped clean, but ceases to exist. Petreaus’ name does not appear in the article.
There is one truly refreshing bit of honesty that breaks through into the Reuters piece on training of Afghan troops:
But senior U.S. military officials admit that money has not always been spent in the wisest ways.
“We have received an awful lot of money from the U.S. government. We need to use it differently now,” said U.S. Army Major General Peter Fuller, deputy commander for programs and resources within the NATO training mission.
Another U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the mission was buying up high-tech equipment to satisfy Washington, while more basic needs were ignored.
Yup. “Training” Afghan forces turns out to be nothing more than an exercise in further lining the pockets of military contractors and the lawmakers who benefit from their lobbying. With that driving force in mind, efforts to achieve a true exit from Afghanistan will face fierce resistance in Washington.
The high level meetings in Islamabad between US and Pakistani officials head into their second day today, after a marathon four hour session late yesterday. The line-ups of officials present for the two countries is remarkable and reflects the seriousness with which the two countries view the current situation. Pakistan’s Express Tribune provides a partial list of those present at the meetings:
Clinton was accompanied by US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsy, Director Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) David Petraeus, US Special Envoy Marc Grossman and US Ambassador Cameron Munter, while Premier Gilani was assisted by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ISI chief Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and other senior officials.
Despite the pomp surrounding the meetings and the seniority of those present, there seems to be little prospect that positions on the major issue will change. As I described yesterday, Clinton is delivering the “new” catchphrase for the US of “fight, talk, build”, meaning that the US places the highest priority on fighting the Haqqani network, seen by the US as the biggest current threat and unlikely to participate in meaningful peace talks. By contrast, Pakistan’s Prime Minister has implored the US to “give peace a chance”. From the same Express Tribune article:
A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s press office also confirmed that Pakistan has no plans to initiate a military operation in North Waziristan.
“Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called upon US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give peace a chance, as envisaged in the All Parties Conference’s resolution,” said the statement.