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The Richard Holbrooke Memorial Peace Talks to End the Afghan War

9:24 am in Uncategorized by Robert Naiman

When a Member of Congress dies, sometimes other Members name a bill after that Member that advances some cause identified with the Member. So, for example, we had the “Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act” – Kennedy was a champion of volunteer service.

Such naming has multiple effects. Of course it honors the departed. But, like the Spanish hero El Cid, whose companions suited him up and placed him on his horse to drive off their foes, it also gives the departed one last ride into battle. When you name something the “Our esteemed colleague who just passed” Act, you’re laying down a challenge – don’t leave this one on the cutting room floor. And everyone gets to cheat death a little by giving the departed one last accomplishment associated with that person’s name.

The uncompleted challenge of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic career was a peace deal in Afghanistan. It was the hope of many that Holbrooke would help broker a peace deal between the warring factions in Afghanistan and between their regional patrons that would end the war. This hope was encouraged by Holbrooke’s role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

This unfinished business was apparently very much on Holbrooke’s mind as they prepared him for surgery from which, presumably, he had some inkling that he might not return.

You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan,” Holbrooke said, according to family members.

Are peace talks to end the war a pipe dream? Not according to many Afghanistan experts with decades of experience in the country.

In a letter to President Obama, the experts argue that

- With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution.

- The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them.

The experts ask President Obama to “sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.”

The signers of the letter include people whose names one sees regularly cited as experts on Afghanistan in major U.S. media: Ahmed Rashid, Gilles Dorronsoro, Anatol Lieven, and Alex Strick van Linschoten. That they are experts with many years of experience in Afghanistan does not prove that they are right; it proves that their proposal deserves a fair hearing.

This week finds us at another fork in the road, as the Administration reviews its Afghanistan policy one year after the last major decision to escalate militarily. The Pentagon has lobbied hard for this review to not to have any meaningful policy consequences. It would be a grave mistake to allow the Pentagon to dictate this. The failure of military escalation to produce any meaningful positive result should have the consequence that the Administration moves much more aggressively to support meaningful peace talks with the Afghan Taliban leadership and the Pakistani military to end the war.

Suit Holbrooke up in his armor, and place him on his horse. We need real peace talks now.

Why Peaceniks Should Care About the Afghanistan Study Group Report

11:17 am in Uncategorized by Robert Naiman

There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. "There are three ways to get out," goes one waggish response. "Air, land, and sea."

This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else’s notion of what is practical.

On the other hand, peace activists can’t be satisfied with being right; they also are morally compelled to try to be effective. And part of being effective is giving consideration to, and seeking to publicize, arguments are likely to end the war sooner rather than later. It’s not likely, for example, that discussing ways in which the war might be useful for the long-term maintenance of the "capitalist world system" will turn the Washington debate against war in the short run. If, on the other hand, central to the official story is a claim that the war is a war against Al Qaeda, but senior U.S. officials publicly concede that there is no significant Al Qaeda presence today in Afghanistan, that is certainly a fact worth knowing and spreading.

This is why it is important for as many people as possible to read and digest the short and accessible report of the "Afghanistan Study Group" which has been publicly unveiled this week. The assumptions and conclusions of the ASG report should be the subject of a thousand debates. But there are a few things about it that one can say without fear of reasonable contradiction. The authors of the report oppose the war and want to end it. The principal authors of the report are Washington insiders with a strong claim to expertise about what sort of arguments are likely to move Washington debate. The authors of the report have a strategy for trying to move Washington debate so that at the next fork in the road, the choice made is to de-escalate the war and move towards its conclusion, rather than to escalate it further. Therefore, the arguments made deserve careful consideration. They may not be particularly useful for making posters for a demonstration. But for lobbying Congressional staff, writing a letter to the editor, or making any other presentation to people who are not already on our side, the arguments of the Afghanistan Study Group are likely to be useful. . . . Read the rest of this entry →

54% Want Afghan Exit, but Petraeus Could Nix Peace Talks with Terror Naming

11:18 am in Uncategorized by Robert Naiman

The majority of Americans want the Obama Administration to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, CBS News reports. 54% think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, with 41% opposed. Among Democrats, 73% think the U.S. should set a timetable, with 21% opposed; among independents, 54% support a withdrawal timetable, with 40% opposed; among Republicans, 32% support a withdrawal timetable, with 66% opposed.

Two weeks ago today, Members of the House of Representatives were polled on a similar proposition, when the House voted on an amendment introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern [D-MA], Rep. David Obey [D-WI], and Rep. Walter Jones [R-NC] that would have required the President to establish a timetable for the redeployment of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. That amendment failed, with 153 Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voting yes, and 98 Democrats voting no; while 9 Republicans voted yes and 162 Republicans voted no. So in the McGovern-Obey-Jones "poll," Democrats in the House were 60%-38% in favor of a withdrawal timetable, while House Republicans were 91%-5% against.

If Democratic and Republican voters in the CBS poll had been allowed to stand in for Democrats and Republicans in the House two weeks ago (ignoring independents, also pro-timetable), the McGovern amendment would have passed 243-171, with 186 Democrats and 57 Republicans voting yes, and 54 Democrats and 117 Republicans voting no.

The gap between 162 yes votes and 243 yes votes is a measure of the gap between the House and public opinion – 81 votes. For a majority of the House to demand a timetable for withdrawal would not require eliminating that entire gap, but only about half of it. It is likely that public support for a withdrawal timetable will increase, as the war drags on and more Americans are killed without any noticeable change in the situation on the ground – and as the federal government continues to fail to boost the economy and reduce unemployment. But even compared to the state of public opinion today, it would only require the House to cut its failure to represent public opinion in half in order to muster a majority for a withdrawal timetable. And as the fall Congressional elections approach, it is likely that the House will move in the direction of public opinion.

But some people in the Administration are pushing in the wrong direction, lobbying for steps that would not only undermine establishing a timetable for withdrawal, but would undermine the "serious drawdown" which we were promised would begin in the summer of 2011.

General David Petraeus is pushing to have the Haqqani network, a key component of the Afghan Taliban, designated by the State Department as a terrorist group, "a move that could complicate an eventual Afghan political settlement with the Taliban and aggravate political tensions in the region," the New York Times reports.

This move would directly undermine the policy in support of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban that the Administration has claimed that it is pursuing. Newsweek reported on July 4:

Washington is eager to make [talks with senior Taliban leaders] happen – perhaps more eager than most Americans realize. "There was a major policy shift that went completely unreported in the last three months," a senior administration official tells Newsweek… "We’re going to support Afghan-led reconciliation [with the Taliban]." U.S. officials have quietly dropped the Bush administration’s resistance to talks with senior Taliban and are doing whatever they can to help Karzai open talks with the insurgents, although they still say any Taliban willing to negotiate must renounce violence, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution. (Some observers predict that those preconditions may eventually be fudged into goals.)

A State Department designation of the Haqqani network as "terrorist" would totally contradict the claim that we are supporting "Afghan-led reconciliation," because if reconciliation is "Afghan-led," then the Afghans get to decide who they will parley with. It’s one thing to say that the U.S. is going to have a say in any eventual agreement – of course it will, a big say. It’s another thing to say that meaningful Afghan government talks with a key component of the Afghan Taliban are off the table, which is the implication that many would draw and try to enforce as a result of a State Department designation of the Haqqani network as a terror group.

Such a designation would be hard to undo politically: look at what a political ordeal it has been to try to remove former Taliban officials from the United Nations blacklist, even people who have clearly reconciled with the Afghan government and are clearly not involved in any kind of terrorism.

Vice-President Biden told Newsweek we could "bet" on "a whole lot" of troops moving out of Afghanistan in July 2011, and Speaker Pelosi has told the Huffington Post she expects "a serious drawdown" to begin in the summer of 2011.

But it’s hard to imagine that by July 2011, there is going to be any kind of stability in Afghanistan or meaningful political framework for resolution without dealing with the Haqqani network, and it’s hard to imagine that efforts to confront the Haqqani network militarily are going to make any significant difference by July 2011. So, a State Department designation of the Haqqani network as "terrorist" would constitute a "backdoor escalation": it would deepen the confrontation, in a way that would make it more difficult politically to carry out a significant drawdown beginning in July 2011. Any State Department move to make such a designation should therefore be preceded by as much debate in Washington as any effort to explicitly throw away the promised July 2011 drawdown would be, because undermining the July 2011 "serious drawdown" is a likely impact of such a move.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

Will Obama Say Yes to Afghan Peace Talks?

8:02 am in Uncategorized by Robert Naiman

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is coming to Washington next week to meet with President Obama. Afghan government officials have said that their top priority for these talks is to get President Obama to agree that the U.S. will fully back efforts of the Afghan government to reconcile with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency in order to end the war.

On the merits, saying yes to the Afghan government’s request for US support for peace talks would seem like a no-brainer.

Either Hamid Karzai is the legitimate President of Afghanistan or he is not. If Hamid Karzai is not the legitimate President of Afghanistan, then Western forces must leave the country immediately, because they have no legitimate basis to remain. But if Hamid Karzai is the legitimate President of Afghanistan, then it’s a slam dunk that his government’s policy of national reconciliation ought to take precedence over Pentagon demands for more killing.

Either the opinions of the people of Afghanistan on questions of war and peace in their country matter or they do not. If they do not matter, then everyone in Washington pontificating about "democracy" or "governance" or "legitimacy" or "corruption" in Afghanistan please shut up immediately and remain silent. If the opinions of the Afghan public do matter, then it’s a slam dunk that the Afghan public’s demand for peace talks ought to take precedence over Pentagon demands for more killing.

Every Western press report from Afghanistan that addresses this issue says that the overwhelming consensus of public opinion in Afghanistan supports peace talks to end the war.

Just this week, Jonathan Steele reported in the Guardian that across Afghanistan, talking to the Taliban is seen as "the only credible way" to end the war, "even among Afghanistan’s small but determined group of woman professionals." Steele interviews a range of Afghan professional women to illustrate his point.

Member of Parliament Shukria Barakzai explains why she supports peace talks:

"Everybody has been trying to kill the Taliban but they’re still there, stronger than ever. They are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that. Every war has to end with talks and negotiations. Afghans need peace like oxygen. People want to keep their villages free of violence and suicide bombers."

If "Afghan women now overwhelmingly want talks with the Taliban," Steele writes, "the same is true of many of the country’s male politicians, particularly the Pashtun." The perception of many Pashtun politicians is that the US invasion put the warlords of the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance in power, marginalizing the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. These Pashtun politicians see a national reconciliation process and new political dispensation with the primarily Pashtun Taliban as a way to end this marginalization of the Pashtuns and incorporate them into the government.

U.S. officials who want to continue the killing concede that the endgame is a negotiated political solution with the Afghan Taliban, but insist that the "time is not right" because "the Taliban have no reason to negotiate," and that we have to kill more of them to "force the Taliban to the negotiating table."

Like Iraq WMD, this is a stupid lie repeated endlessly by all the stupid people until all the stupid people believe it.

When the U.S. government decides to attack a problem diplomatically, this is not how U.S. government officials talk about it. Instead, they emphasize common interests and opportunities for agreement, seeking to expand the political space for diplomacy. This is equally true under Democratic and Republican Administrations; it was true under the Bush Adminstration. The fact that the U.S. government is downplaying the prospect of peace shows you that the U.S. government is not trying to achieve peace. So when U.S. government officials claim that the Taliban aren’t ready for peace, they are really just restating what we already know: that the U.S. government isn’t ready for peace.

Note that a component of the Afghan Taliban leadership has already put a peace plan on the table. In March, a delegation from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami presented a formal 15-point peace plan to the Afghan government. A spokesman for the delegation said the Afghan Taliban would be willing to go along with the plan if a date was set for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.

This information is not a highly classified state secret. It was reported in the New York Times.

It’s kind of breathtaking that the warmonger Washington punditocracy can continue on its merry Energizer bunny way, insisting that there is no basis for peace talks, completely ignoring that fact that a fraction of the insurgency has put a peace plan on the table and claims that the bulk of the insurgency is ready to support the plan if foreign forces will agree to a timetable for withdrawal. But that’s what happens when your raw material for analysis isn’t what’s actually happening in Afghanistan, but what other stupid people in Washington are saying about what is happening in Afghanistan. If the stupid people in Washington aren’t talking about peace talks, then the prospect of peace talks doesn’t exist.

Of course, from the standpoint of the warmongers, a peace plan that requires a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces is a "non-starter."

But from the point of view of the values and interests of the majority of Americans, the opposite is true: the fact that the insurgents’ peace plan requires a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces is a stunningly attractive feature of the insurgents’ peace plan.

Among Democrats in particular, the idea of a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces is spectacularly popular.

Already, eighty-two Members of Congress have co-sponsored Representative Jim McGovern’s bill requiring a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, including such liberal heavyweights as Barney Frank and Henry Waxman. Among House Democrats from President Obama’s home state of Illinois, it’s now 2-1 in favor of a timetable for withdrawal, with Reps. Costello, Schakowsky, Davis, Gutierrez, Jackson, Quigley, Hare, and Rush co-sponsoring McGovern’s bill, leaving only Reps. Bean, Foster, Halvorson, and Lipinski still on the sidelines.

When we compel the U.S. government to accept the policy of a timetable for military withdrawal, we remove the fundamental U.S. obstacle to peace in Afghanistan.

Until now, there have been just a handful of voices in the U.S. debate openly calling for real U.S. support of Afghan peace talks, such as Ahmed Rashid, writing in the Washington Post; Robert Dreyfuss, writing in the Nation; Tom Hayden, writing in the Los Angeles Times; and Gareth Porter, in his reporting for Inter Press Service.

But now that President Karzai is expressly meeting with President Obama for the purpose of securing US agreement to back Afghan peace talks, it’s time to make American public support for peace talks more visible.

Jim Fine of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and I want to place an ad in the DC press next week when President Karzai visits, calling on President Obama to say yes when President Karzai asks him to support peace talks in Afghanistan. If you agree, show us some love.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

U.S. Poised to Commit War Crimes in Marjah

9:00 am in Uncategorized by Robert Naiman

The United States and NATO are poised to launch a major assault in the Marjah district in southern Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians are in imminent peril. Will President Obama and Congress act to protect civilians in Marjah , in compliance with the obligations of the United States under the laws of war?

Few civilians have managed to escape the Afghan town of Marjah ahead of a planned US/NATO assault, raising the risk of civilian casualties, McClatchy News reports.

Under the laws of war, the US and NATO – who have told civilians not to flee – bear an extra responsibility to control their fire and avoid tactics that endanger civilians, Human Rights Watch notes. "I suspect that they believe they have the ability to generally distinguish between combatants and civilians," said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. "I would call that into question, given their long history of mistakes, particularly when using air power. Whatever they do, they have an obligation to protect civilians and make adequate provision to alleviate any crisis that arises," he said. "It is very much their responsibility."

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