Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Afghan Shuffle

Barack Obama is acting presidential.

Via Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly blog Calpundit, we learn that Mr. Obama said this in a portion of an interview with Time’s Joe Klein entitled On negotiating with the Taliban:

"This is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq. The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists, from a more radical, messianic brand of insurgency. Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored."

By “presidential”, I mean addressing issues as if he were president, as opposed to regurgitating campaign-ready talking points.

As I pointed out in The Coming Change of Course in Afghanistan, opening a negotiation track with the Afghan Taliban is pretty much a done deal. The facts on the ground don’t support a solely military solution, everybody else in NATO wants to open talks with the Taliban, General Petraeus is mobilizing opinion inside the U.S. to support negotiations, and the primary purpose of any surge of “two to three” brigades into Afghanistan (Senator Obama’s formula for success) would be to strengthen the West’s negotiating hand in power-sharing talks.

So, Senator Obama is not out of step with elite, in-the-know U.S. foreign policy and military opinion on Afghanistan.

However, this conciliatory consensus hasn’t filtered down to the American electorate yet.

Pne would think that, with less than two weeks to go in a presidential campaign with an increasingly desperate challenger, one might think that Senator Obama would stick with better-strong-than-wrong soundbites about how he wants bomb the mountains of eastern Afghanistan into a flat sheet of glass so he can go bowling for Taliban with Osama bin Laden’s skull.

But he didn’t. Interesting.

In another sign of the converging views and interests between the politician who is likely to become America’s next president and the powerful general who is in a position to provide him with vital national-security political cover, Senator Obama made a point of praising General Petraeus:

On General David Petraeus, with whom he has disagreed over Iraq policy:
I'm glad Petraeus is in CENTCOM ... I think he's ... not just an astute soldier, but I think he's somebody who cares about facts and cares about the reality on the ground. I don't think he comes at this with an ideological predisposition. That's one of the reasons I think he's been successful in moving the ball forward in Iraq. And I hope that he's applying that same perspective to what's happening in Afghanistan.

As to what’s actually happening on the ground, U.S. General McKiernan, commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, endorsed negotiations and was then forced to do an awkward tap dance around the question of Taliban Numero Uno and bin Laden buddy Mullah Omar:

Asked whether dealing with the man who harbored Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was beyond the pale, McKiernan said, "I think that's a political decision that will ultimately be made by political leadership."

Although General McKiernan is a U.S. general who certainly follows U.S.-agreed policy in his remarks, the news report was entitled NATO does not rule out Afghan talks with Taliban, avoiding the dread capitulationism of putting “United States” and “talks with Taliban” in the same headline.

The unspoken wild card here, of course, is that General McKiernan does not speak for the 20,000 or so U.S. and other troops operating in eastern Pakistan under U.S. Central Command—which will be headed by General Petraeus come October 31.

Even if U.S. and NATO political initiatives are coordinated and the West acquires a more relaxed attitude toward Islamic fundamentalism regaining political legitimacy within Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine welcoming Mullah Omar back into the fold unless he gives up bin Laden.

Mullah Omar’s not likely to do that and, if he’s in firm control of the Taliban insurgency—which seems to be doing rather well—it will be difficult for the Karzai regime or the United States to make much headway with a political settlement.

If it turns out that the idea that the Taliban onion can be peeled away from Mullah Omar is a piece of reality-denying wishful thinking that does not reflect the facts on the ground, the United States will be in for continued difficult times.

More to the point, the people of Afghanistan and western Pakistan will be in for continued difficult times as the United States tries to gain the upper hand militarily in order to achieve a more favorable negotiating position.

Long War Journal, a website of embedded and sympathetic journalists that does a very good job of covering U.S. operations in Afghanistan, provided some interesting details on the October 22 U.S. drone attack inside Pakistan that killed quite a few people at a madrassa run by a key pro-al Qaeda tribal militant group:

"We want the Haqqanis to know we will hit them anywhere," a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal after the Sept. 8 strike on the Haqqani madrassa. The Haqqanis work closely with al Qaeda as well as conduct strikes against Afghan and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Manba Ulom madrassa was established by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the family patriarch who has close ties with Osama bin Laden. The madrassa was used in the 1980s to train mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Haqqani family used the Manba Ulom madrassa as a training center and meeting place for senior al Qaeda leaders after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Considering that the madrassa was a Western asset in the mujahideen war against the Soviets in the 1980s, CIA probably knows everything there is to know about this madrassa down to the number and size of latrines—heck, the CIA probably paid for and built the latrines--and the U.S. military had already attacked it before, in September of this year, it would seem unlikely that the madrassa is still used as a training center and meeting place for “high value assets”.

More likely, the U.S. military decided to plaster the madrassa once again regardless of its tactical value, either out of frustration (at that dangerous point where “hearts and minds” goes out the window and “these colors don’t run” bloody-mindedness becomes the order of the day), or because we need to increase the human and material cost of resistance to the most painful level possible as a bargaining chip when negotiations start.

This canny strategy, I believe, did not serve us particularly well when President Nixon ramped up the bombing campaign against North Vietnam in order to give the U.S. additional leverage at the Paris peace talks—and demonstrate to President Thieu America’s undying commitment to South Vietnam’s defense.

However, it did provide President Nixon with the political cover to extricate us from Vietnam.

Readers with a taste for irony will enjoy the Wikipedia account of Operation Linebacker II (over 700 B52s, 20,000 tons of bombs in eleven days; the biggest U.S. heavy bomber operation since the Second World War).

In the words of John Negroponte (!), a Kissinger aide at the time: "We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions."

It will be interesting to see how Senator Obama will play the Afghanistan endgame if he becomes president.