The Obama Talks

by Joshua Foust on 2/19/2011 · 6 comments

Steve Coll has found something significant:

Last year, however, as the U.S.-led Afghan ground war passed its ninth anniversary, and Mullah Omar remained in hiding, presumably in Pakistan, a small number of officials in the Obama Administration—among them the late Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—argued that it was time to try talking to the Taliban again.

Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.

Of course, one hopes that these “senior Afghan Taliban leaders” are not fruit-sellers plucked off the streets of Karachi by zealous MI6 agents; regardless Coll’s account leaves far more questions than answers:

  • By it’s very vagueness, including the meaning of “talks,” this could, quite literally mean anything. The last time NATO was negotiating with a street vendor pretending to be a Taliban, Holbrooke actually rejected the idea of assigning them much meaning at all, as they were so exploratory and with such a tiny supposed faction. He was more right than he knew, but I think the point still stands—we have no idea what this means.
  • As recently as two months ago, there was zero indication from the military intelligence side that the administration was interested in these sorts of talks. That doesn’t mean they weren’t happening, but it’s rare that something this supposedly important is kept quiet, with zero scuttlebutt or RUMINT.
  • There is no indication of the players involved. Coll indicated he spoke with Mullah Zaeef, but everyone else is “senior” or “briefed on.” This could be something as basic as Afghan braggadocio (a friend of Zaeef whispering into his ear) or something happening at such a low level it is functionally meaningless (a mid-level FSO talking with a Taliban fixer at a local guesthouse). We just don’t know.
  • What isn’t vague in Coll’s account is already public knowledge—Omar’s 1998 call, for example, or Team Obama publicly wishing for negotiations. So when you get down to it, Coll is writing 1500 words to describe a few interviews with people who’d allow so little on the record that they wound up saying nothing at all. I’m not sure there’s really any “there” there.

BUT, there could be. And here’s where it gets interesting. For starters, someone in the Obama administration felt the need to leak this information to start a ruckus—not to the usual stenographers at the New York Times’ DC bureau, but with a reporter and a magazine known for fastidiousness and a shyness about rumors (even Seymour Hersch’s magazine work for the New Yorker is sourced solidly). So this was deliberate, and it was strategic. I’ll let someone else speculate as to what that strategy.

With one exception. It is worth noting, as Coll does, that the military does not believe the time is right for negotiations. They follow the Ashley Tellis school of negotiations, which states that one can only talk to one’s enemies from a position of strength. And that has, indeed, been the purpose of the last year’s surge into Helmand and Kandahar—to “break the momentum” (ahh, that poisonous word) of the Taliban.

In fact, this is the ultimate destination of all the happy talk suddenly coming out of Marjah—the Taliban have had their momentum reversed, in the military’s eyes. This should, following a logical stance that negotiations must be done from strength, lead to a realization that the time is right, while the Taliban are reeling and U.S. troops are the highest they will ever be, to begin the talks.

That is not, however, where ISAF is heading. Rather, when Marine Corps Major General Richard Mills describes the Taliban as “marginalized,” what he is doing is making the same argument against negotiations the military made in 2002: the Taliban is a spent force, it is defeated, it is reduced to dead-enders. There is no need, in this mindset, for negotiations, because we’ve been so successful we don’t have to consider ever compromising on anything to achieve a settlement.

So maybe this is the point of this leak: to present the case that the Obama administration is, finally, ready to talk with the Taliban. Even though the military remains dogged in its insistence that the Taliban be bloodied, or defeated, or marginalized before anything else can happen, the Obama administration might be using this leak to signal that it is, in fact, ready for talks to begin.

If that is the case—and it is a huge “if” based on the several assumptions I stated above, any of which could be wrong—then it is an important sea-change in Obama’s views on negotiations. But, what Coll has described so far is not a sea-change: it is a mirror image of what we already thought was happening last fall. So, despite all the interest this piece will create, we still have absolutely no idea what Coll is reporting, who is involved, or what it might mean. In other words, unless it is serving part of a larger messaging plan from the White House, I’m at a loss to explain why either Coll or the New Yorker felt the need to run it.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

Ian February 19, 2011 at 12:05 pm

If Hekmatyar counts as “Taliban” (seems like he might, as Coll puts the Haqqanis under that label) then the negotiations are hardly secret. Hekmatyar’s rep in California discusses them on a US broadcast here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5udzTSdhP4

Steve Magribi February 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm

AfPak as a Sideshow? The Beginning of the End

The Coll Article was indeed a significant “hint hint” at the real direction of how things are going to go in the next several years.
The Secretary of State was even more clear

“We are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict towards a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al Qaeda, ends the insurgency and helps produce a stable Afghanistan and a peaceful region,” Clinton said.

The Administration has decided that things are going crazy everywhere now, and in every sense. It’s not just Egypt, Yemen, or Bahrain or Libya or even later Saudi Arabia or Jordan. It is the confluence of serious economic problems and the need to retrench completely the whole platform on which our foreign policy rests.

We are going to have a “diplomatic surge” now. The Insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan is deemed a non urgent matter at the time when all these “key countries” are collapsing in their own misgovernment and our relative power is decreasing by the year.

The US role is going to decrease, we are content to have an insurgency and a negotiation. New “Stake Holders” be they India or Pakistan or Russia or China or Iran will have to decide how much effort or interest they want to put into the vacuum created by the diminished US interest in the Region.

This is really the equivalent of our departure in 1989, only this time we are leaving the shell of a government with a “new stronger better more experienced” Taliban to contest power as a new power structure develops without a large NATO presence.

Gorbachev should get credit for this and not Ms. Clinton.

Coll mentioned how this might appear to be suspicious to the Afghans. He is right. But on top of the suspicion will be the simple realization for so many that “here we go again.” The US is leaving and it is up for everyone else to pick up the ball. There is little else to be concluded from this effort which started so wonderfully and is now a shell of the hope and potential that it could have been ten years ago.

AG February 19, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I don’t think the question is one of “if” anymore. The momentum has been building in this direction (with and lets not forget President Obama’s base for 2012. I am guessing that some of the Taliban are also willing to negotiate, but whether they are a monolithic whole following orders from Mullah Omar is a big question (Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick’s deal with-us-or-worse-will follow argument not withstanding). Either way, Mullah Omar or other Taliban leaders’ intent is useless here since Pakistan’s decision is far more important.

TJM February 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Even though the military remains dogged in its insistence that the Taliban be bloodied, or defeated, or marginalized before anything else can happen, the Obama administration might be using this leak to signal that it is, in fact, ready for talks to begin.

If that is the case, then I’m going to grow my hair out so that it will be easier to tear it out as more people begin debating the prospect of negotiation. I see precious few proponents or opponents who have a realistic view of the upsides or downsides to negotiation, its appropriate uses, and whom it should involve.

Don Bacon February 19, 2011 at 11:35 pm

The basic political conflict is Pakistan v. India, and that can’t be negotiated. It’s another I/P with the US siding with I.

doyle February 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm

The US role is going to decrease, we are content to have an insurgency and a negotiation. New “Stake Holders” be they India or Pakistan or Russia or China or Iran will have to decide how much effort or interest they want to put into the vacuum created by the diminished US interest in the Region.

I’m thinking that the State Dept.’s thinking on this is that even a runaway train stays on the tracks more or less. American lives, Chinese interests. Ouch.

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