Op-Ed: Obama Lacks A Clear Afghanistan Policy New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll argues that the Obama administration lacks a coherent political strategy in Afghanistan. He believes that its often contradictory approach and internal ambivalence about the Taliban's place in Afghan politics makes any lasting peace in the country a tall order.
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Op-Ed: Obama Lacks A Clear Afghanistan Policy

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Op-Ed: Obama Lacks A Clear Afghanistan Policy

Op-Ed: Obama Lacks A Clear Afghanistan Policy

Op-Ed: Obama Lacks A Clear Afghanistan Policy

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New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll argues that the Obama administration lacks a coherent political strategy in Afghanistan. He believes that its often contradictory approach and internal ambivalence about the Taliban's place in Afghan politics makes any lasting peace in the country a tall order.


And now the Opinion Page. On his official visit to Washington last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai pressed President Obama to move forward with a plan to reconcile with some Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. But while the president says he supports efforts to negotiate with those members of the Taliban who renounce violence and disavow al-Qaida, New Yorker staff writer and author Steve Coll argues that the Obama administration sends decidedly mixed messages, including plans to press ahead with an offensive this summer in Kandahar. And Washington may not be the only player in this process with ambiguous, contradictory or even two-faced positions.

If you've worked or served in Afghanistan, have you seen where there might be potential to negotiate with the Taliban? Give us a call. Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation, the author of a book on Afghanistan, "Ghost Wars." He recently returned from that country. His New Yorker piece is titled "War by Other Means," and there's a link to it on our website. Again, that's npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Steve Coll, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEVE COLL (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Hey, Neal. Likewise, it's good to be back here.

CONAN: U.S. military leaders and the Obama administration say the Taliban is not ready to negotiate and won't be until after the Kandahar offensive, when the U.S. will find itself in a position of strength.

Mr. COLL: Yeah, well, that's our - we're not ready to negotiate. And I don't think we know one way or the other what parts of the Taliban are ready to negotiate. And the U.S. has constructed a clear policy about how they're going to go forward. They'd rather work from the bottom up while they're flowing more forces into the battlefield and leave the sort of high-level strategic talks for after they hope they have changed the momentum of the war.

CONAN: From the bottom up means one Taliban at a time, as one of the generals in your piece puts it.

Mr. COLL: Right. And this has been going on, although fitfully, really throughout the war. There has been an effort by commanders on an ad hoc basis on the U.S. side and by the Afghan government led by President Karzai to reach out to individuals, also groups, small groups of Taliban, try to entice them over. Occasionally, that's worked. The effort now is to be much more systematic, to put an address on reconciliation. So if you're a mid-level Taliban commander and you think to yourself, you know, I've had enough of this, well, then, what exactly do you do? You need a place to go in security to be able to strike a bargain that you think is credible. And the problem now is there really isn't an address for you to turn up at. And the idea is that by the end of this summer, there will be.

CONAN: Well, the analogy is drawn to the effort by U.S. troops in the western part of Iraq, the so-called Sunni uprising, and that was basically an effort whereby the United States said, if you will bring your - you tribal sheikhs, if you will bring your men over to our side, we'll put them on the payroll.

Mr. COLL: You know, I think the United States is still enticed by that experience because it was a source of success in Iraq even while it recognizes that there are important differences in Afghanistan. The similarities are that it took, in Iraq, persistence, a period of years, really, and a lot of informal conversations before those negotiations turned momentum in the war.

The difference is that in Anbar, the Sunni tribal sheikhs were intact. They were united. And when they turned against al-Qaida, they were able to do so coherently. The problem in Afghanistan is that 30 years of war have scrambled tribal power to such a degree that you really cannot flip the switch in the same way as you could in Anbar and change the performance of tribal leaders across the whole region.

CONAN: Well, this particular tribe we're talking about in Afghanistan are - is really the Pashtuns. You say the great majority of Pashtuns are not Taliban, but the vast majority of Taliban are Pashtun.

Mr. COLL: Right. Well, the Pashtuns are sort of a language group and an ethnic group who are tribally organized, but they're organized into two main federations, and then within those federations many tribes, and then within those tribes many sub-tribes. And the power of traditional Pashtun tribal leaders has been challenged during the last 30 years of war by people who have seized power at the point of a gun and who had established themselves as warlords or commanders on the battlefield or have seized land or decimated tribal leaders for the sake of political Islam.

So the whole question of how power is distributed in Pashtu-speaking country is much different now than it was 30 years ago. It makes the negotiations much more difficult.

Having said that, the Taliban do have a supreme leader, Mullah Omar, and around him is a supreme council, the Quetta Shura as it's called - in Pakistan, presumably. And part of the controversy inside he U.S. government is whether or not or when to reach out to that leadership to have strategic negotiations of the sort that brought the conflict in Northern Ireland and in Bosnia to an end.

CONAN: And that would be top-down, but one of the problems there is that Mullah Omar and presumably every member of the Quetta Shura has their name on a list of whether they're supposed to be captured or killed.

Mr. COLL: Well, one of the things that's interesting when you really dig in to this question - I found it interesting, even as someone who's been around this story for a while, is to realize that after we overthrew the Taliban in December 2001, we really did not have a plan for how to treat defeated Taliban commanders. In Iraq, when we went in, remember, we had a very specific plan -it turned out to be catastrophic misguided...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COLL: ...to disband the army and to pursue so-called de-Baathification. And at least Iraqis in the old government sort of knew where they stood and could appeal or negotiate both with us and with other Iraqis. In Afghanistan, it was all chaos, really. The Taliban never had a clear political outreach program directed at them by us or even by the Afghan government, and they ended up on all these blacklists. They were often sold out for incarceration. They were unable to determine when they were safe and when they were in danger. And that continues, to some extent, even to this day.

CONAN: But there is a you talk to a lot of people, as close as you could get to the Taliban, people who are former members of the Taliban. And they were pretty categorical that the fundamental political aims of the Taliban haven't change the great deal.

Mr. COLL: Well, you know, it's mixed. I saw probably seven or eight pretty senior reconciled Taliban or former Taliban leaders of one sort or another, including some who are regarded as quite senior and credible, and others more at the kind of mid to upper levels. And I was very interested, just as an unscientific survey, to ask everyone of them the same question about the extent to which they thought the Taliban could be - could bring themselves to share power.

And what I heard was, really, a divided view. Some people were quite sure that there were significant sections - not everybody - but significant sections of the Quetta Shura who could be brought into power-sharing arrangements, and others were quite sure that the movement remained united in its revolutionary fervor. And so, essentially, I came away as I think the United States has come away from similar discussions - and the Europeans, as well - essentially uncertain about the basic question of whether the Taliban can be reformed.

CONAN: And there's another question and other important player in this game. Can the Taliban be delivered by the country that largely sponsored them, at least in the start: Pakistan?

Mr. COLL: And, you know, Pakistan has an interest in offering itself up as a broker here, because it has used the Taliban as a proxy to obtain influence in Afghanistan. And they see that we're anxious to get out. And they're, themselves, in a position to - at least in their minds, the Army's mind -perhaps to sell us an exit strategy.

And they know we're in the market for one, and frankly, we might be even overpay if they could deliver one. And so that negotiation is very tempting for the United States, because, first of all, Pakistan is where our strategic interests are obviously greatest because of its nuclear power status. And secondly, it allows us to avoid dealing with the Taliban directly, all of that complexity...

CONAN: Don't want to be caught dealing with terrorists after all.

Mr. COLL: And also, you know, the Taliban are complicated. The Pakistanis have a better grip on the internal contradictions and complications and the factions within the Taliban. The question - there's two questions: One, can Pakistanis is really act as an effective mediator? Can they deliver the Taliban? I think there's a lot of skepticism about, in the end, whether Taliban want to be brokered by Pakistan. And secondly, if the Pakistanis have a disproportionate role in any negotiation, it could very well unbalance things in Afghanistan and lead back on a pathway toward the civil war of 1990s. And that would be a disastrous outcome.

CONAN: Because they would be in favor of the Taliban, which would then not go over well with the other ethnics groups, particularly those of the north. And, well, that was the civil war when we last left it in 2001.

Mr. TOLL: You go it. And, you know, even among moderate Pashtuns like President Karzai's Cabinet, there's a really deep suspicion of Pakistan's intentions, based on history. And the idea that we, the United States, who, after all, rescued the country from the Taliban and - in many Afghan minds - rescued the country from Pakistan, that we would now turn to Pakistan as someone who's going to be an honest broker in a settlement, that strikes them as a pretty bad idea. Now, everybody recognizes that the Pakistan has a seat at the table, needs a seat at the table for Afghanistan to have stability. And if our purpose is to moderate Pakistan, to reduce its claims to the correct proportion, to organize a sustainable settlement, great. But in Afghan minds, there's a lot of doubt about that. They see us in a hurry to get out, and they think we might be sloppy in our haste.

CONAN: And one of the lessons you point to, Pakistan recently arrested a couple of pretty high-ranking members of the Afghan Taliban - not the Pakistani Taliban, with whom they're at war, but the Afghan Taliban. And that was seen as, well, you know, light bulbs going on in Islamabad. Maybe there's finally cooperation on the border.

Mr. COLL: Right. And, in fact, its probably correctly interpreted as partly an accident and partly a very deliberate attempt by the Pakistani army intelligence service to make clear to Afghanistan that they demand a seat at the table if negotiations are to occur, that they know which Afghan Taliban had been in touch with the Karzai government. And those are the ones that they arrested.

And, you know, it's very complicated, obviously, but to some extent, the Afghan government of President Karzai created an impression that negotiations were so far advanced that the Pakistani government may have panicked itself into believing that it had to act now in order to get a seat at the table, whereas, in fact, my sense after all of this reporting was that the Afghan talks were actually a lot less far along than some in Pakistan may have believed. So they may have sort of flushed the Pakistanis out.

In any event, whatever the background, the future is one where this question of negotiations is of rising importance. It's of rising importance to the Afghan government, and it's going to be, I think, of considerable importance to the Obama administration over the next couple of years.

CONAN: We're talking with Steve Coll, whose piece in The New Yorker Magazine is "War by Any(ph) Other Means: Is it possible to negotiate with the Taliban?" He's the author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Union(ph) to September 10, 2001." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And if those negotiations are to be conducted, well, clearly, the United States is going to have an important part of that table, so, as you mentioned, are the Europeans. NATO has played an important part in this conflict and would certainly play an important part in the resolution. But then, there's the Karzai government - as illegitimate as many people might see that - and as you mentioned, Pakistan.

Mr. COLL: Yeah. And the United States has tended - in part, because it's not ready for high-level talks. It's tended to emphasize that any negotiations must be led by President Karzai. And what that has meant is a de facto policy of passivity, because President Karzai - although he has made some outreach efforts, has neither the credibility nor the vision at this stage nor the strength to carry out serious negotiations with Taliban leaders on his own. So...

CONAN: You mentioned that his brother, the Baltimore restaurateur, met with some senior Taliban on a hajj to Mecca.

Mr. COLL: In fact, President Karzai's efforts have mostly been run through family members. Ibrahim Spinzada, who's the number two in the intelligence service and who is his brother-in-law, and Qayum, his brother who keeps a restaurant in the United States, they have been two important envoys to the Taliban. And with sometimes quiet help from American diplomats, like the former Ambassador Khalilzad, they have, in fact...

CONAN: Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr. COLL: Zalmay Khalilzad. They've peeled off a few groups. Khalilzad peeled off probably the largest chunk of Taliban to come into the Kabul government. That was around three or four years ago. Since then, Karzai has tried to do it through his brother and his brother-in-law. And they've developed talks about talks is about what it amounts to. That's not insignificant. There have been some outlining done about how serious negotiations could proceed.

But the talks have been stuck by the attitude in the United States - at least everybody who participated, who I talked to, said that. They said, really, we can't go forward if the United States doesn't approve. And at least in the current environment, the United States does not approve, because the Taliban have not conceded the conditions, the - to the conditions that the United States has named.

CONAN: Which are: you recognize the Constitution, you disavow al-Qaida and you disavow violence.

Mr. COLL: And privately, I hear, well, you know, the U.S. position, at least when the time comes - maybe later this year or next year - is probably flexible on the constitutional question in the context of Afghan negotiations that don't sell out the status of Afghan women or the right of girls to an education or other important human rights issues to the West, but probably some flexibility on that point.

Where the United States cannot be flexible - I heard again and again - is on the question of al-Qaida. So the Taliban do have to cross a bridge that Mullah Omar refused to cross, but others around him suggest they might be willing to cross, which is to formally break with al-Qaida. As soon as they do that, they will bear consequences. Al-Qaida will turn on them, and it will get violent. So it's not an idle decision for the Taliban to make.

CONAN: So in - if that doesn't happen, the next step, then - can it be expected to be this offensive that is expected to focus around Kandahar this coming summer?

Mr. COLL: The idea, I think, is to put a lot of military pressure on the Taliban over the next six months, maybe a little longer than that, in their heartland, in Kandahar Province, where they were born, where their seat of government effectively was, and to hope that that sort of ripples back combined with Pakistani pressure on them in exile in Pakistan to create conditions that are more favorable.

It puts a lot of pressure on the counterinsurgency campaign in Kandahar. And that's that Times story this morning out of Marjah, New York Times story out of Marjah in Helmand, suggests, you know, this is a difficult counterinsurgency campaign. These things don't generally happen on a short timeline, even when they're successful. I think RAND once did a study that said the average length of a successful counterinsurgency campaign was something like 13 years.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. COLL: So we haven't even hit the median, and we haven't really been practicing counterinsurgency except but in the last year or 18 months.

CONAN: And Marjah, obviously, launched earlier this year, thought to be or described as successful in the early days, but the issue, obviously, still in doubt.

Mr. COLL: Yeah. Very much. And I travelled through there briefly. It wasn't a very satisfying visit to judge independently what was going on. But even in the short stay, it was clear that while the United States could hold any street corner it wants to militarily, it can clear any road, the Taliban can't compete with the United States Army in the field or the Marines in the field, block to block.

But this is not - that's not the kind of contest that we're talking about. It's a political contest. It's a question of civilian attitudes. And in the nighttime, the Taliban are still the force. They're still coercive. All it takes is one dumped body of a neighbor farmer on the road to send the population in the other direction.

CONAN: Steve Coll, thanks very much for your time today. Thank you.

Mr. COLL: Okay, Neal. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Steve Coll, staff writer for The New Yorker Magazine, president of the New America Foundation, with us today from our bureau in New York. His piece is in this week's issue of The New Yorker Magazine. You could find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, we'll parse the next steps for the new health care law. What's next for young and old? Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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