Refusing Politics

by Joshua Foust on 8/29/2011 · 8 comments

Kathy Gannon drops an unsurprising bombshell:

Infuriated that Washington met secretly at least three times with a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan government intentionally leaked details of the clandestine meetings, scuttling the talks and sending the Taliban intermediary into hiding, The Associated Press has learned.

In a series of interviews with diplomats, current and former Taliban, Afghan government officials and a close childhood friend of the intermediary, Tayyab Aga, the AP learned Aga is hiding in Europe, and is afraid to return to Pakistan because of fears of reprisals. The United States has had no direct contact with him for months.

This should surprise no one who follows Afghanistan closely. And while it is inevitable this will be played as yet more evidence that Hamid Karzai is out to ruin our day, what it really means is the U.S. government still, to this day, refuses to think of Afghanistan as a political place, where politics actually matter and must be worked through instead of dictated to. I’ve written of this near ad nauseum for years and years, both within the Department of Defense and here, in public.

No one cares, sadly. The U.S. doesn’t really like to work with other governments, it prefers to work on top of, or around them. Hence, it continues to do things like bombing Pakistan regardless of the destabilizing consequences to Pakistan’s own politics. These things should not surprise us, not in 2011.

Besides which, the entire negotiations track the U.S. took never made any sense. The American negotiating strategy with the Taliban seems to revolve around somehow providing sufficient incentives for the Taliban to give up their opposition to foreign forces in the country, their opposition to the Karzai government, and their opposition to the supposed anti-Islamic bent of both. In other words, it is focused on figuring out how best to bribe the Taliban to abandon their ideals and their reason for being.

A real negotiated framework for defusing an insurgency involves creating the structures and institutions of a government so that an insurgency is unnecessary—so that the Taliban, in this case, can pursue their goals of removing foreigners and making the central government more Islamic and less corrupt without resorting to violence to do so. Demanding they accept the current constitution as is (even though the Afghan government itself doesn’t seem to think it terribly functional), and that they give up violence as a means of achieving change (even while the new U.S. ambassador seeks to deny them non-violent means of doing so) not only doesn’t make sense. It is yet more evidence that the U.S. government not only doesn’t get politics, but that it actively rejects political considerations.

The war in Afghanistan is fundamentally a political conflict. It is years past time that we began to treat it like one.


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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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{ 8 comments }

Don Bacon August 29, 2011 at 8:11 pm

The assumption here is that the US actually wants settlements of political disputes and the stability that they bring, which is not borne out by US foreign policy which is to maintain and extend instability.

The most blatant example is of course I/P which has been going on for years and shows no sign of resolution. It simply involves Israel, a state the size of New Jersey with fewer people, and the Palestinians they displaced, a situation that the most powerful state the world has ever seen could resolve with a finger-snap, if it would.

Other examples are Korea, a divided country still at war under a sixty-year armistice, the Iraq Wars, the extension of Operation Enduring Freedom into Pakistan, and other military activities including the recent Libya exercise which shows signs of being duplicated elsewhere.

So is the US stupid about these matters? No, it sees more profit (political and financial) in starting them and NOT resolving them.

Grant August 30, 2011 at 7:40 am

I think you may have argued that elsewhere and I must say that it makes just as little sense here*. It assumes the U.S somehow has political super-powers to solve geographic, racial and religious disputes simply if it wants to.
It imagines that the U.S is profiting from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute when there is no profit to be gained in it by the U.S, not even American arms industries.
It somehow thinks that the U.S gains anything by the current deteriorating state of affairs in the Korean peninsula.
It ignores the fact that the U.S has spent far more money in Afghanistan and Iraq than it could have possibly gained.
Lastly, it presumes the existence of some vast military-political-industrial conspiracy to create problems when the world easily has enough of them to keep the arms industry profitable for decades.

*Not to mention it ignores well documented history, such as the fact that North Korea invaded South Korea which started the sixty-some years of not-peace.

Don Bacon August 30, 2011 at 11:47 am

It doesn’t take “super-powers”to solve disputes, as Mr. Foust suggests. The US has taken significant diplomatic initiatives in the past to do so. The problem currently is that evolved US foreign policy is primarily mandated by “security” interests and managed by the Defense Department, not the State Department.

Generals are allowed to dictate how long the US stays at war, for example, a condition that Harry Truman (for one example) never would have allowed.
Obama has had his prima donna Petraeus to dictate that the US military stay in Afghanistan — forever? Truman said about (another prima donna) General MacArthur: “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three quarters of them would be in jail.”

Other points:
–Israel is required to spend a majority of its military aid in the US, helping maintain the US as the largest arms merchant in the world. War is more profitable than peace. Remember the ‘peace dividend?’ It never was allowed to happen.
–The US has never championed a reunification of Korea, as many Koreans want, which would have solved the problem. Instead it is expanding its presence in bases one air-hour from Beijing and Shanghai, which is the real objective there, not anything Koreans want. The US is currently conducting huge military exercises in and neasr Korea in violation of the Armistice Agreement.
–Huge profits have been realized by current US military operations. One example is Senator Feinstein’s husband whose construction companies realized millions of dollars in profits from construction contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Feinstein was an early member of a senate subcommittee overseeing construction.
–The world has problems, sure, but they have been made worse by the US emphasis on profitable military activities which bring and extend instability. People generally resist foreign military occupations, just as you and I would, yet the US continues to promote the idea that it needs combatant commands and a military presence throughout the world. The newest US combatant command is AFRICOM, and look at Libya.
–Meanwhile China, with its opposite policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, is ‘cleaning the US clock’ with its economic successes based upon diplomacy and aid. In general, other countries try to get along with their neighbors, not attack them. The US could (and should) learn from that.

Refusing Politics? — Yes, it’s US policy, unfortunately.

Grant August 30, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Actually no, the U.S doesn’t make that much off the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The market isn’t big and it’s not any use for R&D. Besides that actually there’s far more money to be made off of peace. Money spent on wars only goes so far and even then tension is much more profitable than actual fighting. I’m fairly sure that joint Korean-American exercises aren’t banned.
Lastly I suppose the ‘moral’ thing to do would have been to ignore massacres and torture in Libya when Qaddafi won? I’m starting to think that the U.S just can’t win. If we ignore human rights violations we get accused of backing dictators and being hypocrites*. If we refuse to back them we get accused of not being pragmatic and not really wanting to help their nations. If we back rebels we get accused of trying to overthrow a regime**. No matter what we do people always seem to find the worst in us.

*Even though China and Russia do the exact same thing without many people angry at them.
** Even though Qaddafi spent several decades doing just that across Africa and half the continent (including South Africa) seems to consider him a hero.

Don Bacon August 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm

from the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement:
“. . .an armistice which will insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved,” — The US regularly holds provocative military exercises, acts of armed force, including shelling North Korea’s territorial waters.

“In order to insure the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, the military Commanders of both sides hereby recommend to the governments of the countries concerned on both sides that, within three (3) months after the Armistice Agreement is signed and becomes effective, a political conference of a higher level of both sides be held by representatives appointed respectively to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.” — That wasn’t done in 3 months or ever because the US seeks to prolong instability on Korea.

Regarding Libya, the speculative specter of Gaddafi massacring Libyans had no basis in fact, but we know see the rebels massacring people including especially black people. It ain’t over yet.

Grant: “No matter what we do people always seem to find the worst in us.” That’s because what the US does, commonly includes bombing the shit out of some backward country and the locals don’t like that. Go figure!

Dan August 29, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I hate to use words like “hubris,” mainly because it’s a smart word and I’m leery of them, but, until the US makes the Afghan government (in whatever form) a partner in the process, vs. keeping it in the dark like they’re our annoying little brother, this will continue.

Consistently our actions indicate that we are more inclined to dictate the rules, rather than collaborating with others in whatever game we’re playing this week.

It’s another depressing indicator of the conflicts among the policymakers that these sorts of things continue to happen. We ask for transparency from the Afghans, the Pakistanis, even the Chinese, but are terribly non-transparent ourselves when it suits our ends.

Grant August 30, 2011 at 7:42 am

So it’s the fault of the U.S that the Afghan government acted to ruin talks between the U.S and a high ranking Taliban member? Even if we’re working under the assumption that the U.S isn’t negotiating well that’s really not the best way to make your argument.

Don Bacon August 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Obviously there’s more to this story. Karzai initiated talks with the Taliban long ago, with the US merely looking on. Karzai hosted a Peace Jirga in June 2010 with 1,600 attendees. While President Obama publicly supported the Peace Jirga, the US ncontinued to stress that no peace was possible until coalition forces could reverse Taliban momentum on the battlefield. The audacity of hope! The Jirga resulted in an endorsement by tribal leaders of a plan to engage militants in a reconciliation process.

Certainly there has been no US move to follow Senator Kerry’s prescription of a year ago: “The answer is a political resolution. And that political resolution has to come about by engaging to a greater degree with India, with Pakistan itself.”

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