President Obama made it clear yesterday that he’s looking at his war in Afghanistan through rose-tinted glasses, and there’s no indication at all that he understands the importance of trying to strike a deal with the Taliban-led insurgents to end the war.
The question is: Did the U.S. administration put enough pressure on Hamid Karzai that the Afghan president will stop trying to cut a deal with the Taliban? The administration has lately suggested that it intends use a “carrots and sticks” approach to Karzai work, meaning that they’ve stopped treating him like a puppet, downgrading him instead to the role of a recalcitrant donkey. Will it work? Will Karzai submit to a U.S. diktat to scale back his diplomatic efforts and get on board with the yahoo-like offensive in Kandahar? It remains to be seen. Karzai is unlikely to give the finger to the United States while on American territory, but we’ll see how he behaves when he gets back home, downgraded from puppet to donkey in the Obama administration’s treatment.
Obama’s remarks yesterday, at the news conference with Karzai, were blinkered at best:
“We’re partnering with Afghan and coalition forces, and we’ve begun to reverse the momentum of the insurgency.  We have taken the fight to the Taliban in Helmand Province, pushed them out of their stronghold in Marja.”
Does he really believe that? In what sense is the “momentum of the insurgency” reversed, when the Pentagon’s own reports suggest that things are getting worse? And Marja? That operation was a pathetic fiasco. The Taliban is surging back into the very districts seized by U.S. forces last February and March. The Pentagon report showed that the insurgency is spreading from the south and east into northern districts, and that of 120 key Afghan districts, only six are under government control.
Worse, there’s no indication whatsoever that the United States has a plan in place for talking to the Taliban. Yes, the United States has long said that it will “reintegrate” Taliban fighters at the ground level who agree to take cash from U.S. and Afghan officials. But a broader plan? No. In his remarks yesterday, Obama – with Karzai at his side – said that the United States is prepared to open the doors “to Taliban who cut their ties to Al Qaeda, abandon violence, and accept the Afghan constitution, including respect for human rights,” i.e., to Taliban who surrender. That’s not negotiations. That’s not diplomacy.
Karzai, who’s going home to convene a national peace jirga, or council, for the very purpose of trying to establish an Afghan consensus about reconciling with the Taliban – a very difficult task – soft-pedaled his own ideas about talking to the Taliban. In so doing, Karzai was playing according to the rules of this visit to Washington, which called for submerging the huge differences between U.S. and Afghan interests in favor of a sweetness-and-light alliance. (Obama lied that those differences were “simply overstated.”)
To his credit, Obama did insist that the July, 2011, deadline for starting the withdrawal of U.S. forces is a real one, though he hedged on how many troops might actually be withdrawn, and at what pace. Here’s what he said:
“What I have said is, is that having put in more troops over the last several months in order to break the momentum of the Taliban, that beginning in 2011, July, we will start bringing those troops down and turning over more and more responsibility to Afghan security forces that we are building up.
“But we are not suddenly, as of July 2011, finished with Afghanistan.  In fact, to the contrary, part of what I’ve tried to emphasize to President Karzai and the Afghan people, but also to the American people, is this is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence. 
“I am confident that we’re going to be able to reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, and I am in constant discussions with General McChrystal, as well as Ambassador Eikenberry, about the execution of that time frame.”
But Obama insisted that even though there is no strictly military solution to the war, U.S. policy will continue to “have a strong military component to it,” and that “there’s going to be some hard fighting over the next several months.”
In his remarks, Karzai didn’t say anything about his idea for “reconciliation” with the Taliban – as opposed to U.S.-backed “reintegration.” Instead, he was singing from the U.S. song book:
“There are thousands of the Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of al Qaeda or other terrorist networks, or controlled from outside in any manner troublesome to us.  There are thousands of them who are country boys who have been driven by intimidation or fear caused by at times misconduct by us, or circumstances beyond their control or our control. 
“It is these thousands of Taliban who are not against Afghanistan, or against the Afghan people, or their country — who are not against America either, or the rest of the world, and who want to come back to Afghanistan if given an opportunity and provided the political means.  It’s this group of the Taliban that we are addressing in the peace jirga.”
If that’s true, if that’s Karzai’s approach, then the war will go on for years. The Taliban is not going to be dismantled fighter by fighter, with bags of cash and offers of government jobs from Kabul, but in a political deal of the sort that was discussed between Karzai and representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party in March. At that time, Hekmatyar’s group offered a truce and a political deal in exchange for a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Obama repeated the lame rationale for his 2009 escalation of the war. To get the Taliban to the table “depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily.” He added:
“At what point do the Taliban start making different calculations about what’s in their interests, and how the Afghan people feel about these issues, is in part going to be dependent on our success in terms of carrying out our mission there.”
My question: At what point does the United States “start making different calculations” about what’s in its interests?