The recent news that the Taliban plans to open an office in Qatar and pursue negotiations with the United States has raised a number of important questions -- for the United States, for Afghanistan's future, for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and for the war on terror.
There are always risks in talking with any terrorist group, and the Taliban are no different in this respect. Most knowledgeable observers believe that the Afghan security forces, individually or with the assistance of the U.S. and ISAF, will not be able to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, at least anytime soon. This means that some type of negotiated solution is the best near-term bet to halt the fighting.
What is interesting is why the Taliban has agreed to a formal diplomatic process now. In a sense, this opening is not really a new development. The United States has been talking to, and with, the Taliban since the Clinton administration, when the U.S. asked that it hand over Osama bin Laden. What is new is that this marks the first time that a formal diplomatic process is being established to broker an end to the conflict.
No one can be sure as to the Taliban's motivations, which could range from general war fatigue, to wanting a halt to U.S. Predator strikes and night raids, to wanting the Obama administration transfer some of its high-ranking members from Guantanamo to Qatar. It is also possible that the latest diplomatic moves could merely reflect the desire of only one faction of the Taliban to explore a peace deal; every insurgency or terrorist group appears from the outside to be more coherent and unified than they are in reality.
Who, precisely, represents the "Taliban" in these talks is not a trivial matter. In 2010, the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government pursued talks (and transferred funds) to an individual purporting to be Mullah Omar's number 2. In reality, he was a Pakistani convenience store owner with a beard.
The administration seems to have road-tested the credibility of the Taliban officials who will be sitting across the table in Doha, but questions remain in at least three areas. The United States still needs to determine: (1) whether the Taliban officials sitting across the negotiating table represent themselves, a small faction, or a broader constituency, (2) whether they have the authority to impose any agreement on the mujahedeen in the field, and (3) whether they have a genuine interest in a permanent halt to the conflict on terms that are agreeable to the United States and its Afghan partner (e.g., renouncing ties to al Qaeda, laying down their weapons and supporting the Afghan constitution).
Of course, talking to the Taliban is not cost-free. Harm may be done to the relationship between Washington and Kabul. After the Taliban killed the chief Afghan negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani, last September, President Hamid Karzai stated that he would no longer negotiate. Karzai subsequently opposed the idea of talks when it was initially floated, recalling the Afghan ambassador from Qatar, and he did not immediately support the talks when they were formally announced last week, suggesting that he still has grave reservations and is being dragged reluctantly by the Obama administration into this process.
Previously, both Washington and Kabul had agreed that any peace process would have to be "Afghan-led." Clearly, that has not happened and represents a significant conceptual difference between the U.S. and its key ally before the talks have even started. This will complicate the U.S. and Afghanistan coordinating future negotiating positions. And, at some point down the road, Kabul is going to have to take the lead and "own" this process if it stands a chance of success.
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The anointment of a new leader of the Chinese Communist Party has usefully re-focused the world's attention on how China might use its growing economic, military and diplomatic power and influence in the coming years, and how its neighbors, and especially the United States, will respond. A lot is riding on China's decision. The regional and even the international order for the coming decades, and perhaps longer, will depend on which pathway it selects.
The Chinese have a talent for developing aphorisms that can apply to any situation, and so I've decided to borrow from that tradition and call my remarks "The Four Hopes, the Five Preferences, and the One Test."
Now, a rising China is nothing new. It has been predicted, and feared, for well over two centuries. In the United States, it has long been a repository of hope for those people who had both the vision to understand China's potential and the arrogance to think that the United States could actually shape China to meet our desires.
During the 20th century, these hopes found expression in three separate areas. In the early part of the century, China was viewed as a vast and lucrative market for American goods. The Harvard historian Ernest May tells us that one of the books on China that was popular at the time was called Four Hundred Million Customers. The thinking was that U.S. factories could be prosperous beyond belief if only each Chinese would buy one ... well, one of anything we produced.
Coexisting with this first hope of unimagined riches from trade with China was a second hope, one more concerned with the next world than this more temporal one. Many Americans saw China as a great opportunity to convert pagans to Christianity. More important than four hundred million consumers, there were four hundred million souls waiting to be saved.
The middle of the 20th century saw a third U.S. hope for China: that it would become a thriving democracy. Henry Luce and his media empire of TIME, Life, and Fortune magazines relentlessly trumpeted to the American people the potential waiting to be unlocked by a China comprised of unfettered markets, religious converts, and especially Jeffersonian democrats.
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After a fairly quiet year of retirement, former President Bush was back in the news this week after being asked to assist the Obama administration in Northern Ireland. This intervention may have surprised many of the president's critics, but not those of us who had worked with President Bush on this issue.
President Bush was heavily involved in the details of the peace process, knowing not only the major actors like John Hume, Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and of course Gerry Adams, but also the relatively less powerful political leaders from the other parties in the North.
In the annual St. Patrick's Day ritual at the White House that came to be known as the "stations of the cross," the president would meet in turn with the leadership of each party as he made his way around the room. He had mastered the alphabet soup of acronyms designating the myriad political parties, and would discuss with each group its political prospects and major challenges.
All relatively minor stuff, critics might sniff. But this was more than just the nuts-and-bolts responsibilities that come with the Oval Office. These moments revealed the president's deep respect for the everyday political courage and physical bravery of these men and women who risked their lives in the cause of peace.
This was most clearly demonstrated when I invited the McCartney family to the White House for the St. Patrick's Day that immediately followed the brutal murder of their brother, Robert, by IRA thugs outside a Belfast pub. The president was deeply moved by their story and listened with compassion to the hardship they had suffered and their quest for justice (a quest that sadly remains unfulfilled to this day).
This was the same president who would subsequently overrule his NSC staff in late 2006 when he believed that it would enhance the chances for peace if Gerry Adams was allowed to visit the United States, a policy I supported because Adams had fulfilled his promise to move his constituency to support the rule of law. The decision also showed that Bush would reflexively favor no particular religious, ethnic, or political group (even when it might have been advantageous to do so for domestic political reasons). What mattered most was advancing the cause of peace.
It is therefore no surprise that the Obama administration has reached out to the former president for his assistance. And the Bush's prompt assistance should remind everyone that the Northern Ireland peace process has been a bipartisan effort for decades, and the better for it.
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North Korea's recent launch of its rocket over the Pacific no doubt served multiple agendas for Kim Jong-il: demonstrating toughness to a domestic audience at a time when some may be questioning his life expectancy, retaliating against both South Korea and Japan for perceived and real slights, enhancing the country's marketing strategy for foreign missile sales, and raising the price for any possible buy-out should the Six Party Talks reconvene. Not a bad day's work for the leader of a poor, dysfunctional, friendless country.
Obama administration officials, after having warned (and failed to dissuade) the North not to launch, are now blustering about how Pyongyang's action violated UN Security Council 1718 (a pretty strained reading of the resolution), further isolated the North (as if that was possible) and should now be punished by additional UN sanctions (not going to happen).
So what can the United States do? Let's review the options.
Military action is not viable, especially with the United States already committed to two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Short of a second Korean war, military options have priced themselves out of the market, as indeed they have for the past fifty-plus years.
Economic sanctions have been ineffective in shaping Pyongyang's behavior, even when there has been rare agreement in the UN Security Council. (Enforcing compliance is another matter altogether. Despite past UN resolutions banning luxury items, there appears to be no shortage on fine cognac and fancy electronics in Pyongyang.) China and Russia have already stated publicly in the past few days that they are not willing to impose additional UN sanctions. The United States, Japan, and South Korea could unilaterally adopt commercial and other trade sanctions. But the reality is that these countries' leverage is limited due to their relative lack of interaction with the North, Pyongyang's willingness to allow its people to suffer hardship and, perhaps most important of all, China's unwillingness to allow the North to collapse.
Diplomatically, that leaves the Six Party Talks (6PT). During the past few years, the Bush administration staked out untenable positions only to capitulate after the North raised tensions, whether over the Banco Delta Asia accounts in Macau or the October 2006 nuclear test. Predictably, rewarding North Korea's misbehavior only encouraged more misbehavior. By repeatedly telegraphing its eagerness to return to the Six Party Talks, the Obama administration now appears to be making the same mistake.
So what to do? I would advocate a policy of what might be termed "malign neglect." The starting assumption is that the North Koreans will now play hard to get, using their reluctance to return to the Six Party Talks as leverage for an easing of sanctions, provision of additional food aid, a resumption of energy assistance, or other benefits. And no doubt the Obama team will try to appease the North's desires and ease them back to the negotiating table.
This would be a mistake. Although it is possible for the United States to bribe the North back to the negotiating table (we have done it before), this would be mistaking process for substance. The goal of the Six Party Talks is not to get to the North Koreans to the bargaining table. It is for the North Koreans to want to come to the table to investigate whether it makes sense for them to abandon their nuclear weapons programs and forge a fundamentally new relationship with the United States and the region. The United States and the other 6PT members cannot make this calculation for Pyongyang and they should stop trying to do so.
Instead, the Obama administration should do three things:
First, it needs to state that it is prepared to resume the Six Party Talks whenever the North is ready to do so -- and then say nothing else. There is really not much more to say, anyway. For once, we should at least try to be as patient as the North Koreans.
Second, the United States needs to repair relations with our two major allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea. Both relationships have been bruised in recent years and Seoul and Tokyo are anxious about whether the new team in Washington will fully consult and coordinate on its North Korea policy. In this sense, the North Korean nuclear issue is not about North Korea at all. It is about the United States preserving alliance relations. After all, we can't control what the North does, but we can control what we do in relation to Seoul and Tokyo.
Third, we ought to welcome South Korea's joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and encourage China to do so. These actions should be part of a clear and unequivocal message sent to Pyongyang that the international community will not tolerate the North's export of any nuclear technology or ballistic missiles. In addition to enhancing global security, this would choke off a source of hard currency to the regime.
These modest steps, forming a policy of "malign neglect," may be unsatisfying to many. But they have the merit of placing the burden for progress in the negotiations on North Korea, where they should be, on playing to U.S. strengths in our alliance relations in the region, and on aligning our nonproliferation interests for the Korean peninsula with those of the international community.
By Mitchell Reiss
Reuters has the story:
The European Union has made a gesture towards accepting a Palestinian unity government that could include Hamas, a move it hopes can help heal a rift between the Islamists and their Western-backed rivals, Fatah.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday, used new language to describe the conditions under which the bloc would be prepared to work with a new coalition, should Hamas and Fatah manage to agree to one....
Instead of spelling out three long-standing conditions, also adopted by the United States, that Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept existing interim peace accords, Solana said only that a new Palestinian government that included Hamas should commit to pursuing a two-state solution.
Perhaps Solana was misquoted, perhaps he was selectively quoted. Otherwise, he surely must have known that this statement undercuts the new president and secretary of state, who only days ago repeated publicly the three conditions for the United States engaging with Hamas: renounce violence, respect previous agreements, and pace Reuters, not "recognize Israel" diplomatically, but simply accept Israel's right to exist.
More broadly, Solana's statement sends a signal to those in the region, including Iran, that the Europeans will always look for the lowest common denominator when negotiations get difficult rather than adhering to commonly agreed principles. This message also undermines those in the region, especially other Palestinians, who are trying to moderate Hamas’s extremist positions. It is far more likely to prolong conflict, not shorten it.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.