Once again, on the eve of a major meeting of U.S. and NATO foreign and defense ministers on October 14, the “Magician” in his green cape with a wide-sweeping gesture says, “Look over there!” And everyone takes their eyes off the ball, to be entralled once again by the Magician’s magic.
This magic causes them to forget nine years of dealing with the Magician, the rational and analytical factors that are relevant to the situation on the ground, and strategic thinking on how to manage and overcome the obstacles those realities pose, including the goals to be pursued.
The latest gesture is really a series of actions, including the recent formation of a peace negotiation council and culminating in the well-timed news report, based on an interview with a NATO official, on background, announcing that ISAF is facilitating preliminary discussions–not negotiations–aimed at reconciliation of the Taliban and reintegration of their members into Afghan society.
The NATO official confirmed that “there has been outreach by very senior members of the Taliban to the highest levels of the Afghan government.” But the official cautioned that these have been only preliminary discussions about reintegrating insurgent fighters and reconciling with the militant movement’s leadership.
Even so, the official said, prospect of a cease-fire and peace pact as a path to ending the war, now nine years old, is deemed sufficiently tantalizing that personnel from NATO nations in Afghanistan “have indeed facilitated to various degrees the contacts (emphasis added).
The NATO official…spoke in advance of a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday that will include alliance ministers of foreign affairs and of defense. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are scheduled to attend.
Thursday’s meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers comes a month before an alliance summit in Lisbon to discuss strategy in Afghanistan.
–Thom Shanker, “NATO Helping Afghan-Taliban Talks, Official Says,” New York Times, Oct. 13, 2010
In January, at the London Afghanistan International Donors Conference, Hamid Karzai used a similar ploy with great success. There, he moved attention to excitement about reconciliation with the Taliban, away from the massive electoral fraud in the August 2009 presidential elections which he had just overseen (the climactic moments of which came in early November, 2010), and away from the continuing and massive corruption in Afghanistan, from the top down.
The Allies fell for it, and ignored the electoral fraud for all intents and purposes. Now, as another massive electoral fraud is underway, the allies talk of the “magic” solution of negotiating a deal with the Taliban and exiting the country, which is, in the words of the NATO official quoted above, “sufficiently tantalizing” to lead NATO to facilitate safe passage of Taliban members to Kabul.
But there are hard fracts on the ground. The Taliban has the momentum, and according to most reprts is gaining ground. Good governance, according to U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is the sine qua non , i.e., absolute prerequisite, for any success against the Taliban.
So, here is the agenda which should form a central focus of discussions among leaders of the NATO countries and also among the more broadly-based donors conferences to be held in the future:
1. What is Hamid Karzai doing to build good governance–i.e., constitutional government and the rule of law–in Afghanistan?
2. Will he reverse the blocking of the two anti-corruption bodies that had been established, and allow prosecution of high-ranking officials in his government for graft or other corrupt activities?
3. What is he doing to ensure that the counting of votes in the September 18 national assembly elections is conducted fairly, and that all complaints of electoral fraud be fully investigated with their results being reflected in the vote totals?
4. What is he doing to establish good governmence and the provision of government services in the Kandahar region, as the U.S. moves to clear the Taliban from the area?
These are not, of course, the only questions that need to be taken up in allied discussions. However, they require a central, serious and sustained focus, both at meetings and in ongoing discussions between coalition officials.
If a central requirement for Taliban reconciliation and reintegration is that they accept the Afghan constitution, the allies should also insist that Hamid Karzai accept the Afghan constitution and the rule of law, even when it comes to the prosecution of his cronies.
Will it hapen? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Karzai has “rolled” President Obama on the corruption issue, and there now appears to be little inclination to hold him to account. In fact, with the dismissal of the deputy attorney general in charge of the anti-corrupion efforts, the whole allied anti-corruption policy is in a shambles.
Let the leaders of the allies and the donors group focus on that, not the Magician’s latest ploy. Without good governance, which by definition appears to be impossible in a lawless state, the U.S. and its allies are not likely to prevail in Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus is quoted by Bob Woodward in his new book, Obama’s Wars, as saying, “I understand the government is a criminal syndicate.” (p. 220).
American, ISAF and other coalition soldiers should not be asked to risk their lives to maintain in power “a criminal syndicate” headed by Hamid Karzai. The central task for decisionmakers, in the U.S. as in allied countries, is to move the government of Afghanistan toward observing the rule of law. That appears to be the only path to establishing good governance.
The alternative, in theory but not really on the ground, is to fall for the Magician’s ploys about reconciliation and reintegration of the Taliban, and just hope the whole problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan will simply go away.
We should bear in mind that even the negotiated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam took five years of negotiations in Paris (1968-1973). In that case, the consequences for the U.S. of withdrawing from Vietnam and the ensuing defeat of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 were very minor, when compared to what would happen in South Asia if a negotiated peace with the Taliban led subsequently to the fall of the Afghan governmet to the Taliban.
The Magician’s ploy is “tantalizing”, particularly to those with no memory or who see no way out of the morass in Afghanistan. But all concerned should keep their eyes on the ball, the realities on the ground, and discuss in earnest a strategy that can overcome them.
Since the U.S. strategy appears to be in disarray, perhaps NATO foreign and defense ministers can come up with some useful ideas, particularly with respect to the establishment of “good governance” and the rule of law, including effective prosecution of individiuals at the top of the power structure in Afghanistan.
The Trenchant Observer
Comments are invited.