Shadow Government

Negotiating with evil

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.

Karzai's grudging reluctance is partly explained by the Taliban's stated desire to talk only with the United States, in an attempt to marginalize and delegitimize the Karzai government. (Of course, this effort is assisted by the Karzai government's well-documented shortcomings, especially its institutionalized corruption.) The Taliban may also believe that it can extract better terms from an Obama administration eager to exit the battlefield and wind down its participation in the war than from a Kabul government that will have to deal with the consequences of an imperfect peace agreement.

Ideally, these complications should have been worked out methodically and patiently in advance of any public announcement of a peace process, thereby minimizing the embarrassment to our Afghan ally and giving the talks a greater chance of succeeding. The fact that they were not suggests that the Obama administration may have an unrealistic notion about the time-frame needed to have this inchoate process yield tangible results. The history of similar negotiations between states and terrorist and insurgent groups indicates that the process always takes longer than government officials think, to be measured not in weeks or months, but in many years and even decades. (For example, the Northern Ireland peace process took thirty-five years; Spain's engagement with the Basque separatist group, ETA, is ongoing after more than half a century.)

Ultimately, any talks cannot succeed without Pakistan's support, since Pakistan provides sanctuary to the Taliban and their families in the border areas with Afghanistan. Islamabad's attitude, or more precisely, the attitude of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), is unknown, but it is unlikely that it would have allowed the Taliban to proceed this far if it reflexively opposed the talks. It may have calculated that openly preventing the talks from going forward would have needlessly aggravated further its relations with Washington, especially since it may believe the talks have little chance of success. And allowing the talks to proceed at this point will not preclude the ISI from pressuring the Taliban to walk away at any point in the future if it feels that Pakistan's equities are at risk.

A further complication of the United States now talking publicly with the Taliban is that it complicates the Obama administration's message to our soldiers in the field, to the American people and to our allies: Is the Taliban our enemy or our negotiating partner? In reality, it may be both. But this is a perilous path for any government to navigate, as Vice President Joe Biden discovered with the uproar over his recent comment that the Taliban is not our enemy.

The administration's challenge would have been made less problematic if it had pre-wired some type of gesture or concession from the Taliban, such as a temporary cease-fire in a province or region.  Perhaps one is already in the works and will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead. But until then, the administration appears to be more eager for the talks than the Taliban -- never a strong negotiating position.

Bottom line: at this point, the administration has exposed itself to a diplomatic process it cannot fully control, with an ally that is not fully committed, and with an adversary it does not fully understand.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Iran in Latin America is no laughing matter

On his current tour of Latin American outliers, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped in Venezuela this week to share a belly-laugh with his compañero Hugo Chávez over the supposed nuclear threat either of their countries poses to the civilized world.

Gesticulating outside the presidential palace, Chávez said, "That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out," with Ahmadinejad adding that any bomb they would build together would be fueled by "love."

A couple of real cut-ups.

While their mockery should fall flat amongst most sober observers, the fact remains that much of Washington is still unable to grasp the nature and dimensions of the Iranian threat in Latin America.

For example, elsewhere on this site, Michael Shifter, a perceptive analyst of Latin American politics, fails to contemplate the worst of Iran's intentions and argues instead that Iran hasn't managed to meet many of its economic pledges in the region, and has equally failed in making inroads with the biggest power players of the region, such as Brazil.

That, indeed, may be true, but neither is relevant to Iran's covert agenda of evading international sanctions and developing contingencies if the cold war with the United States was to suddenly turn hot.

Indeed, for the past twelve months or so, skeptics have proven more diligent in attempting to debunk reports of Iranian-Venezuelan collusion than following where the (prodigious) trail leads. The hoary "no smoking gun" is continually trotted out to summarily end any discussion.

But for anyone who cares to look, the public record is filled with more than enough information to elicit serious concern about the Iranian threat and spur demand that Washington take more concerted action. Consider just the following:

Money Laundering: Iran has already been caught evading sanctions through Venezuela when an Iranian bank in Caracas was sanctioned by the Treasury Department for providing financial services to Iran's military.

Drugs: U.S. law enforcement officials believe that a weekly commercial flight between Caracas and Tehran and Damascus (dubbed "Aero-Terror" by Brazilian intelligence because no one knows who or what are on those flights) is used to traffic illicit drugs from South America to the Middle East.

Uranium: Venezuela possesses vast amounts of uranium, primarily in the Roraima Basin along its border with Guyana. Across the border in Guyana, a Canadian company is mining uranium. On the Venezuelan side of the border, we are to believe Iran is operating a "gold mine."

Weapons: In two cases made public, ships smuggling either bomb-making equipment from Iran to Venezuela or weapons to Hezbollah from Venezuela were intercepted.

Terrorism: A member of the terrorist network plotting to detonate fuel tanks at JFK International Airport in New York in 2007 was arrested on the run to Venezuela where he planned to board a flight to Tehran. An explosive documentary, "The Iranian Threat," aired last month on Univision, presenting not only incriminating information on Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats discussing cyberattacks on sensitive U.S. computer systems (the State Department subsequently expelled the Venezuelan diplomat from the U.S., where she had been re-posted), but also compelling evidence on how young Latinos are targeted for recruitment and paramilitary training in Iran and Venezuelan camps visited by Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Colombian FARC.

Again, this is but a sliver of the information that has already been made public about Iran-Venezuela machinations. Instead of pundits pining for that "smoking gun," they should be demanding what is it that we don't know?

Thankfully, Capitol Hill is starting to get active on this issue and will press the administration for answers on these important questions when they return later this month. The White House will also likely find itself on the defensive on this issue during this election year -- and that is all to the good if it focuses policymakers minds on the problem.

And as the layers of the Iranian-Venezuelan relationship continued to be stripped away, it is a virtual certainty that even more distressing details of the threat posed to the United States will emerge. But the longer we wait, it will prove only more difficult to counteract.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images