Shadow Government

Talking with the enemy

One of the frustrating things about watching news coverage of Afghanistan is the regularity with which old ideas or initiatives are breathlessly reported as new. The premier example is Taliban reconciliation.

President Hamid Karzai first called for the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government after his election -- in 2004. The Bush administration developed a reconciliation policy around the same time frame, establishing as redlines that the Taliban must renounce violence, sever ties to al-Qaida, and accept the Afghan constitution -- the same redlines the Obama administration is adhering to, according to all the press reporting on it. We've been pursuing a negotiated end to political violence in Afghanistan for eight years. As Mitchell Reiss rightly points out, we were even talking with the Taliban during the Clinton administration.

Nonetheless, the idea pops up every 18 months or so as the new silver bullet that promises to end our involvement in the region on the cheap. And when it does, it reopens a tired debate between, on the one hand, those who reject all negotiations as a morally-troubling compromise with evil, and, on the other, those eager to accept any face-saving deal that allows a decent interval between our withdrawal and the outbreak of civil war.

Allow me to imitate President Obama here and reject the false choice between two straw men. Both sides are wrong. Negotiations are a useful tool and probably the best means to end the war. It would be more satisfying to have a Taliban surrender ceremony and a Kandahar War Crimes Tribunal. I would love to see a president or a general pound his fist on the table and bellow "Taliban delenda est!" but that seems unlikely.

On the other hand, talks are not an abandonment of our war aims or our Afghan allies. Talking with the Taliban does not lessen our commitment to defeating the Taliban as a military force. Talking is not an alternative to defeating the Taliban's military capability, but a key weapon with which to do so. Talks are a weapon in the arsenal of counterinsurgency. Even if we fail to secure an immediate ceasefire, by talking with our enemies,* we sow discord between hardliners and moderates, encourage defections, plant disinformation, gauge their morale, and force them to ask what their true war aims are (force footsoldiers to ask what they are risking their lives for). These can all have useful battlefield effects.

What matters is not whether or not we talk with the Taliban, but what kind of agreement emerges at the end of talks. This seems to be where the Obama administration is on shaky ground. Obama and his team seem eager, too eager, to get any agreement from the Taliban on a set timetable. But it should be the content of an agreement, and its enforcement mechanisms, not its timing, that matters the most. Done right, an agreement could be the best and most cost effective opportunity to secure our interests in South Asia, including denying safe haven to al-Qaida, reversing the momentum of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency, and denying Iran a proxy in Kabul. Done wrong, a settlement could be the excuse the U.S. invokes to justify abandoning the region as its collapses around us.

All this begs the question: if we've been trying to reconcile with the Taliban for eight years, why haven't we succeeded yet? The answer is because until 2010-2011, we were losing the war. The Taliban had no incentive to sit down at the negotiating table because they believed, with good reason, that they stood to gain more by fighting than by talking.

The fact that they are now openly talking about negotiations with the United States and the Afghan government, even seeking to open a political office in Qatar, is an indicator that the increased military pressure of the last two years is working. As DoD announced in October, violence actually decreased in 2011 for the first time in at least five years. The Taliban no longer believe they're winning. At least some of the Taliban leadership seem to believe they have more to gain from talking than fighting. Our military progress has started to change their cost-benefit calculation. This a heartening sign that, at long last, our tactical military successes are contributing to strategic progress.

That explains why negotiations are not a silver bullet. They only work when the enemy feels talks are the only alternative to defeat. Talks must be matched with ruthless, withering firepower. Talks are not cheap, and they are not easy. To get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire that protects our interests in the region, we have to keep up the military pressure for some time yet. The deadline for withdrawal directly harms this goal. It is abundantly clear that the deadline is the greatest strategic threat we face in Afghanistan and one of Obama's worst foreign policy blunders.


*Despite the vice president's vast expertise in foreign policy and military affairs, I humbly disagree with his characterization of the Taliban. People who regularly seek to kill American soldiers in combat are our "enemies."

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A tricked-out trade bureaucracy

Late last week, President Obama unveiled his concept for a slimmed-down trade team. He proposed consolidating six existing agencies into one new body focused on global commerce. The headline change was the merging of the United States Trade Representative's office with large chunks of the Department of Commerce.

There are reasons to question how serious the president might be about the plan. A roll-out on the Friday before a three-day weekend in Washington is not so much "prime time" as "wee hour infomercials." The president also seems to have neglected to keep key Congressional leaders apprised of his thinking -- rarely a recipe for successful cooperation. Congress tends to care deeply when reorganizations change the jurisdiction of its committees. Congress also has a particular interest in trade, since Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants the legislature authority over the topic.

This all has led some skeptics to wonder whether this might be simple election-year positioning. It could be a trifecta play for independent voters: reform government, promote trade, and demonstrate Congress' truculence (after deliberately provoking it). Or perhaps it's just a wry, vestigial tribute to departing pro-trade Chief of Staff William Daley.

Whatever the case, the proposal raises at least a couple major concerns:

1. Should there be a White House trade agency?

Once upon a time, trade was handled out of a cabinet agency -- State. There was concern that State might put too much emphasis on striking deals with foreign counterparts and not give enough weight to domestic concerns. So, in the early 1960s, Congress and President Kennedy created USTR's precursor, the Special Trade Representative, as part of the Executive Office of the President. In 1979, the STR grew into USTR.

With the benefit of a few decades experience, is there any good reason to retain a trade agency in the White House, as opposed to nestling it into a cabinet agency? Yes.

In describing its latest proposal, the White House states: "[T]here are six major departments and agencies that focus primarily on business and trade in the federal government." The key word in that claim is primarily. The modern trade agenda involves a significantly larger number of government agencies. When financial services are on the table, Treasury is concerned. When intellectual property questions arise, there's the Patent and Trademark Office. When the discussion turns to beef market access, it's Agriculture. On export control questions, Defense speaks up. Almost every trade agreement raises diplomatic (State) and economic (CEA) questions and could well have an impact on workers (Labor) and business (Commerce). The list goes on.

For this reason, trade issues are commonly hashed out through an interagency process. With the benefit of its position in the White House, USTR serves as an impartial chair of this policy process. If USTR and the trade-related components of Commerce were to merge, how would an administration handle interagency disputes? Of course, a White House body like the National Security Council or the National Economic Council could play the impartial chairing role, but that would require a vastly expanded support staff to cover the broad range of intricate issues. That could effectively mean a re-creation of the current USTR, resulting in minimal savings.

Or the administration may just be arguing that it cares only about export promotion, the traditional domain of the Commerce Department. That would be consistent with the President's mercantilist view of trade, in which exports are good and imports are better left unmentioned. But it would be bad policy.

2. Is this trade process politics in lieu of actual trade progress?

This is not the first trade process reform advocated by the administration. In August 2009, President Obama launched a review to reform the U.S. export control system. Over two years later, progress has been minimal. It is the same sort of issue that requires Congressional action and threatens committee jurisdictions.

To avoid lengthy delays with his latest reform, the president is seeking a version of "fast track" authority from Congress to conduct the reorganization. This request comes just months after refusing to seek new "fast track" authority to pursue actual trade liberalization. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried to attach such authority (Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA) to the September trade package, opponents argued that the issue was too complicated and needed a more thorough rethink. Yet, years after TPA lapsed, no rethink or request has been forthcoming from the White House. TPA not only paves the way for a trade agreement to move through Congress, it also provides crucial signals in the negotiating stage about whether any given White House trade stance will have Congressional backing.

This choice of agency reorganization over trade negotiating authority may sound hopelessly arcane to any but the most devoted Beltway trade devotee. There are some serious foreign policy implications, however.

If history is any guide, the president will devote limited political capital to pushing trade matters through Congress in the foreseeable future (he devoted none over his first two years). He has just declared that his priority will be a contentious organization chart reshuffle. If this is in lieu of TPA, then the president will have no hope of getting trade agreements through Congress in the near future. If that's the case, his vaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership will be little more than endless talk. And, if that's the case, his trumpeted pivot to Asia will have lost its economic pillar.

The president just asked for the wrong fast track. He must hope independent voters don't notice.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images