Americans elected President Obama in part based on his promise to put diplomacy and international cooperation, rather than the use and threat of military force, at the center of his foreign policy. With respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while there have been some encouraging signals, in terms of actually implemented policies the folks who voted for Obama are not yet getting the "diplomacy first" that they were promised.
Last week the Washington Post reported that 55% of Democrats support negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, and that 56% of Democrats think the U.S. should focus more on economic development in Afghanistan than on defeating the Taliban militarily. Given that not all "Democrats" voted for Obama, and not all "Republicans" voted for McCain, and that pro-diplomacy Democrats and Republicans were more likely to vote for Obama than McCain, these numbers may understate the case.
The Washington Post-ABC poll asked:
Would you support or oppose the U.S. negotiating with elements of the Taliban if they agreed to suspend attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces?
Among Democrats the answers were: 55% yes, 39% no, 6% no opinion.
The poll asked:
Do you think the U.S. should focus more on economic development in Afghanistan or more on defeating the Taliban militarily?
Among Democrats the answers were: 56% economic development in Afghanistan, 32% defeating the Taliban militarily, 12% no opinion.
The great thing about talking to the Taliban is that it costs nothing, kills no-one, and is compatible and complementary, at least initially, with every other strategy.
It costs nothing, because if in negotiations Afghan insurgents demand something totally unreasonable, you can always say no. If the talks go nowhere, you haven't lost anything; in fact, you've gained credibility with the Afghan population because you showed you were willing to negotiate. And if the talks break down because you stood firm on an important principle, then Afghans can see that you stood firm on an important principle.
If, on the other hand, Afghan insurgent leaders say: "we'll stop fighting if you agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of your forces," and if you were eventually planning to withdraw your forces anyway, now you've got something to talk about.
What could be more monstrous and absurd than more than doubling our military operations in Afghanistan - starting a new war, essentially, and leading almost certainly to an increase in civilian deaths, as aid agencies warned NATO leaders on Friday -because we say we have to fight people who oppose the presence of foreign troops, and that we can't leave until we defeat them militarily?
Why not make agreements with most of the people we are now fighting, and agree to a timetable for withdrawal, as we have done in Iraq?
And even if talks with Afghan insurgents did not lead quickly to a comprehensive agreement on all issues, mightn't it useful to pursue intermediate agreements? Let's say we want to build some schools. Wouldn't it be useful to have agreements with insurgents not to shoot at the people building them or blow the schools up?
As the Washington Post reported on Friday:
Analysts say that elements within Pakistan retain an interest in keeping Afghanistan unstable and the Taliban active, but they have shown they can rein in the Afghan fighters when it suits their needs.
"The key is to get the big players in Pakistan to sign on to the elections," said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. In 2004, he said, Pakistani officials agreed to support elections in Afghanistan at Washington's request and sent out the word through several key intermediaries; as a result the polling was entirely peaceful.
The diplomat and several Afghan experts said that the same thing happened during the recent voter registration here, and that it could happen again in August if Taliban "handlers" in Pakistan approve bringing the Afghan insurgents - who depend on outside support for weapons, money and physical sanctuary - into the election. "It worked before, and we are all working hard to ensure it works in August," the diplomat said.
If we can make agreements with the Taliban to allow elections to proceed peacefully, why not other agreements?
I am a big fan of the "Obama Doctrine" that the U.S. can talk to anyone. I'd like to see the Obama Doctrine applied in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and applied before there is any military escalation.
[Stephen Kinzer, author, former New York Times foreign correspondent, argues that sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan won't bring security to the Afghan people. The U.S. needs to adopt a rational policy, which would acknowledge that not everyone now affiliated with the Taliban has to be our enemy. We need a surge of diplomacy, not troops.]