1. Afghanistan Weekly Reader: Perspectives on the Peace Process

    Published: January 5th, 2012

    The announcement that the Taliban will open a political office in Qatar in exchange for the release of Taliban officials from Guantanamo Bay has been alternately hailed as a dramatic breakthough and criticized as a surrender. Whatever the spin, this development indicates that the process for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan is moving forward. Unfortunately, U.S. military involvement in the region is far from over and strong support still remains for maintaining troop levels through 2014 and after.  Although U.S. troops are expected to shift to an advisory role over the next year, peace negotiations are progressing slowly as the cost of war continues to increase.

    From ASG
    Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan But Stay Engaged
    Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski

    Bringing the troops home is not retreat, and it is not abandonment. It is simply the first step towards a more effective Afghanistan policy and a smarter, more responsible defense budget.

    US army’s new Afghan nightmare – how to ship $30bn of kit
    The Guardian by Jon Boone
    The US army has begun the massive task of withdrawing $30bn (£19bn) worth of military equipment from Afghanistan three years before most Nato troops leave, with logisticians warning of complications from the lack of decent roads and the nightmarish geography of a landlocked country surrounded by states that are either fickle American allies or outright enemies.

    A long goodbye to Afghanistan
    LA Times by Doyle MacManus
    The Afghanistan withdrawal won’t be anywhere near as final as the one we just saw [in Iraq]. U.S. military leaders are working on a new slimmed-down strategy that would keep some American troops in combat against the Taliban for years to come, long after 2014.

    Military Advice and Policy Decisions
    National Interest by Paul Pillar
    If General Allen understands his mission to be stabilization of Afghanistan and the continuation in power of the Afghan government of the day, he should provide his best advice as to what forces are needed to accomplish that mission. And if whoever is the U.S. president in 2014 determines that accomplishing that mission is not sufficiently critical to U.S. interests to warrant extending a U.S. military expedition that would have already gone on for thirteen years, he should overrule the general’s advice.

    2011 Reflections: What happened to the US debate on Afghanistan?
    CS Monitor by Ben Arnoldy
    Should the war run for three more Christmases? That question can be answered in various ways. But as someone who has just returned to the US, I simply want it to be asked here.
    As I enjoy the peace of this holiday season, so removed from the conflict zone I recently experienced, I remind myself that we should spare a few thoughts for those who won’t be home for the holidays – and consider why exactly that is.

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  2. Navigating the Afghanistan Peace Process: It’s Going to be a Bumpy Road

    Published: October 26th, 2011
    Author: Mary Kaszynski

    Mary Kaszynski
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    “I don’t know any peace process that hasn’t been a bumpy process,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during her trip to the Middle East last week. Her words proved timely. US-Afghanistan relations encountered a bump not two days later, when President Karzai said that Afghanistan would back Pakistan in the event of a US-Pakistan war.

    During her visit to Kabul, Sec. Clinton (never known for pulling punches when it comes to Pakistan) sent a “clear, unequivocal message to the government and the people of Pakistan that they must be part of the solution. And that means ridding their country of terrorists who kill their own people and who cross the border to kill in Afghanistan.”

    Karzai agreed, which is why his comments Sunday came as something of a surprise. “Perplexing,” some called it; Others a “rhetorical flourish.” However, the US State Department says it’s irrelevant: “It is not an issue, because it [a war] is not going to happen.”

    The explanation for Karzai’s remarks is simple, according to Afghan officials: they were misinterpreted. Karzai was referring to Pakistan’s accepting Afghani refugees, and indicating that if there were ever a need, Afghanistan would return the favor.

    It’s hardly surprising that Karzai would distance himself from the statement. In addition to the reaction he got from the West, his remarks must have raised a few eyebrows in New Delhi. India and Afghanistan recently announced a strategic framework for cooperation on a number of issues – security, but also trade, education and social ties.

    The episode was a perfect example of the complexities surrounding multi-state peace negotiations in the Af-Pak region. Afghanistan is trying to reach out to both its neighbors – which is essential if we’re to achieve peace and stability in the region – while maintaining its relationship with the US. In this case, Karzai’s attempt to show solidarity with Pakistan backfired with Western allies.

    The takeaway for the US is that the flare-up of this past weekend is typical of the peace process. As Afghanistan and Pakistan step up to the negotiating table, and take on responsibilities for regional security, we may not like everything that comes out of the process. In fact, we will have to “get realistic” about our own goals, accepting that there will be bumps along the way, and that we may not always be driving.

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  3. Reconciling the Afghan Analyst Network

    Published: July 2nd, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    How confident should we be that the supposed reconciliation talks are going to succeed?  Why don’t we check with the folks from the Afghan Analysts Network?

    Thomas Ruttig is not too optimistic:

    It is even not clear whether every actor involved in the [Taliban peace talks] really wants peace: The US military continues to try crushing the Taliban militarily and possibly to avoid substantial talks. The Taliban have started their own kill campaign of key Afghan security forces leaders, particularly of Northern provenience.

    This analysis comes after a recent Karzai speech in which the president declared ongoing peace talks for the first time between the U.S. and Taliban, a move that was widely portrayed positively in western media.  In Afghanistan, as Ruttig’s observations epitomize, things are seldom what they seem:  Karzai’s emphasis on American led negotiations directly contradicts the State Department’s repeated assurances that any peace deal will be Afghan led.  Then there is a little matter of the Tayyab Agha talks in Berlin, which were allegedly leaked to journalists from the presidential palace.

    Ruttig concludes:  Every day on which they do not seriously work towards genuine and inclusive talks, with the Taliban and those who oppose them, armed or not, diminishes the chances for a peaceful solution.

    Compared to Ruttig, Ahmad Shuja, a guest blogger for the Afghan Analysts Network, is slightly more optimistic.  Shuja has been following former Northern Alliance intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, at one point going so far as to lead protests against prospective peace talks.   Shuja sees Saleh changing his tune in a recent op-ed, and opening the door a crack for prospective talks:

    In this new language, Saleh is indicating a shift from his previous position of adamantly opposing any kind of talks with the Taliban… Saleh has been one of the leaders of a movement against talks with the Taliban and is thought to have lost his job as NDS chief because of a disagreement on this subject with President Karzai.

    This new rhetoric is an improvement, albeit a marginal one.  Many of Saleh’s demands seem a little far fetched, such as his insistence that the Taliban disarm or pushing for investigations into human rights abuses over the past twenty years (a timeframe which includes the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s).   Sounds like a good idea, except that virtually all of the perpetrators remain in key positions of power.   I’m not sure that either the Afghan government or the Taliban will ever embrace Saleh’s views.

    But not to worry, if reconciliation doesn’t work out, at least we still have a successful “reintegration program” to fall back on.  Just listen to this glowing endorsement from a recently reintegrated Taliban fighter:

    “In the last five months I have received none of what they promised me: no salary, no good accommodations. Those who are fighting now say: ‘Your men are jobless. What have you achieved?’ ”

    God save us.

    I’ll leave former British Ambassador Sherard Cowper- Coles with the last word on reconciliation from his brilliant interview with LA Times:  When asked whether a reduction of forces will improve chances at a peace deal, here was the Ambassador’s response:

    It’s a question of showing the Taliban you’re serious about wanting an honorable peace for all the internal parties to the Afghan conflict [and] also all the regional parties…. The Taliban know that they’re not going to win total victory; they know they’re never again going to rule the whole of Afghanistan.”

    Right now, there is a surplus of rhetoric (most of it self-serving crazy talk) and a deficit of trust.  As Ambassador Cowper-Coles correctly illustrates, for any peace deal to have a remote chance of success, this dynamic has to change.

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  4. Reconciliation: Then and Now

    Published: May 31st, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    About eight months ago, a spate of articles were published in major American newspapers suggesting that the U.S. and Afghan government had begun serious overtures to the Taliban.  At the time, some optimists suggested that the U.S. was turning a corner in its Afghan strategy, particularly with the decision in that month to allow insurgents safe passage to negotiate with the Afghan government.  (As Afghanistan Study Group Director Matthew Hoh pointed out, nothing dampens an insurgent’s incentive to talk peace as much as a hellfire missile through the windshield.)  These reports died down, soon after it was revealed that the man supposedly representing the Taliban was actually a lowly shopkeeper from Quetta, not the number two man in the Taliban as had been believed.

    Flash forward eight months, and its reconciliation season again.
    The latest report in a string of “secret talks” articles comes from the German paper Der Spiegel. Apparently, the Germans have been mediating talks between Tayyab Agha (a relative of Mullah Omar) and senior U.S. officials.  I imagine the vetting process this time around was a little more stringent, although depressingly David Ignatius writes in this morning’s Washington Post:

    “[U.S. officials] are trying to establish whether Agha speaks for Omar and his Quetta Shura, or for a faction of it, or whether he is a lone wolf.”

    Oh, boy.  Here we go again.

    While the news out of Germany may be promising, Pakistan’s role in potential talks remains complicated.  During a previous reconciliation period, Pakistan successfully scuttled negotiations by arresting Mullah Baradar—the Taliban’s lead negotiator.  Ironically, the arrest was at first depicted as a coup for the U.S.-Pakistani relations, that is until someone annoyingly pointed out that:  a. Baradar was not really hiding (remind you of someone else?) and b. was the most approachable member of the Quetta Shura.

    Thank goodness this time around the Pakistanis are playing a more constructive role, pushing one of the most violent groups, the Haqqani Network, to engage in talks according to a recent report.  How does the U.S. respond to this Pakistani collaboration?  From the Wall Street Journal:

    “I don’t see any evidence that makes me think Haqqani is a guy we’re going to want to be talking to,” said a U.S. official.

    The U.S. is pissed that the Pakistanis are pushing for talks, and not taking it to the insurgency militarily in the FATA region.

    Makes you wonder how committed we really are to a negotiated settlement.

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  5. Advancing the Drawdown

    Published: April 22nd, 2011

    Wednesday, a group of high-caliber panelists gathered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to participate in a frank discussion on the United States’ strategy for the Afghanistan War. The panelists included the highly regarded blogger and analyst Josh Foust in conversation with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering; Afghanistan Study Group Director (and former Marine Captain) Matt Hoh with RAND Corp. Director (and former ambassador) James Dobbins); and American for Tax reform President Grover Norquist along with conservative firebrand Ann Coulter.

    The panel discussions provided a wealth of insight into the global, regional, local, social, economic, and political dimensions of the conflict. The policy prescriptions laid out, even though they differed in some respects, would all be useful steps forward if they were in fact acted upon by policymakers.  In the end, the panelists perspectives on the road ahead were succinctly summarized by former ambassador Pickering:

    “Right time to get out? As soon as possible. Right time for negotiations? Now.”

    This recommended course of action is increasingly taking on the tone of a mantra chanted by all those paying attention to the failing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. However, when it comes to determining whether the strategy actually changes, it was the critical voices on the final panel that may carry the most weight.

    This is because of the political perfect storm that was created when a Democratic president campaigned against the “war of choice” in Iraq and escalated the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan with the acquiescence of a Democratic Congress unwilling to confront the executive and an American public largely unaware that a trillion dollar unwinnable war was being fought on their behalf.

    The result, as ASG co-founder Richard Vague put it in the first panel discussion, is that, “We’re locked into something that’s almost on auto-pilot at the cost of $120 billion a year…in a country whose GDP is only $16 billion. It’s out-of-balance.”

    The critical leg of support for keeping that out-of-balance war in Afghanistan from tipping over is made up of conservative voters and legislators who have turned a blind eye towards the Democratic administration’s failure to produce a clear strategy that uses vital national interests as its guide.

    In the final panel of the day, Grover Norquist, and Ann Coulter stepped into that void and called out conservatives who had passively accepted a war that runs directly counter to their values.As Coulter put it in her initial salvo against Republican supporters of the decade-long war in Afghanistan:

    “I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense, but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too.”

    A special edition of our newsletter will be emailed Monday. This issue will highlight Coulter’s showdown with the Republican establishment that continues to support Obama’s war as she calls for conservatives to stay true to their values and take action against the failed strategy in Afghanistan.

    You can watch the first two panels of the ASG / New America Foundation event, “Afghanistan War: Containing or Leveraging U.S. Power?” on C-SPAN’s website. Find the links below.

    Panel 1: “The Afghanistan War: Reviewing America’s Strategic and Economic Position”

    Panel 2: “Next Steps in Afghanistan: What are the Options?”

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  6. How to Interpret the ASG Report and Blog

    Published: April 18th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    An expert on Afghanistan recently brought up two interesting critiques of the Afghanistan Study Group. The first concerns the nature of the war—is it an ethnic or political conflict?  The second concerns the appropriateness of drawing parallels between war costs and economic and social problems here at home. Both issues are worth discussing in greater depth.

    Ethnicities, Tribes, and Politics

    First, to state the obvious, suggesting that the Afghan conflict is partly ethnic is not the same thing as saying Taliban are an ethnically homogenous group, (a conclusion that Study Group Director Matthew Hoh has repeatedly rejected).  The ASG Report says the conflict is

    1) partly ethnic, chiefly, but not exclusively, between Pashtuns who dominate the south and other ethnicities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks who are more prevalent in the north, 2) partly rural vs. urban, particularly within the Pashtun community, and 3) partly sectarian”.

    This, to me, seems like a fair statement although more emphasis should have probably been placed on the importance of tribal divisions.  The fact that we identify the Taliban in south and east as predominately Pashtun, and insurgent groups in the north as primarily Uzbek, highlights the ethnic component of the conflict[i]. But ethnicity, as this report indicates, is by no means the sole point of contention. The war is highly complex, with multiple layers and multiple sides.  In some areas of Afghanistan, the conflict is best described as a Hatfield and McCoy type “sectarian” feud between families, clans and villages. The United States invaded Afghanistan without understanding this complexity; it is unclear whether either those who support continuation of the COIN strategy, or those who favor peace talks have come to grips with this.

    But there is a broader point here that some “experts” ignore at their peril: Politics in Afghanistan are woven into ethnic and tribal identities.  You cannot separate the two.  Anand Gopal explains this linkage better than anyone:

    “…tribal identity is still an important mechanism through which individual interests are negotiated.  In Southern Afghanistan’s system of largely informal networks, a shared tribal or clan background with the holders of power means access to state services, resources , and more.”

    Gopal concludes that marginalized tribes “formed the recruiting base for the Taliban.” Even noted historian and anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who comes down strongly in favor of rural vs. urban explanation for the conflict, agrees that in Afghan politics “tribal and ethnic groups take primacy over the individual”.

    Yes, political grievances are at the heart of the insurgency, but these political grievances reflect complex ethnic and regional dynamics.  To suggest that the Afghan conflict is political and not ethnic or tribal is to fundamentally misunderstand Afghan politics.  This is not a trivial error.  If political reconciliation is the best hope for peace going forward, longstanding ethnic and regional tensions have to be addressed, or we risk further exacerbating the conflict.  Indeed, trying to separate politics from tribal and regional dynamics is undoubtedly an exercise in determined ignorance.

    Drawing Parallels between Afghanistan and U.S.:  Does it Make Sense?

    Will Thomas has written a number of blogs highlighting how the costs of the war reflect a society whose priorities are out of whack.  My personal favorite compares Marjah in Afghanistan to Camden New Jersey, one of the most violent cities in the United States.  But does this parallel make sense?  Camden has a local government.  What does it have to do with the federally funded war?

    First, (again to state the obvious), Will Thomas was clearly not suggesting that the money for Afghanistan could be immediately reallocated to New Jersey.  The point of the post was to broadly illustrate America’s skewed priorities.  Second, more importantly, federal funds do go towards local communities like Camden all the time.  Just last year, the stimulus spent over 77 million dollars in Camden and federal funds have frequently supported local police and firefighters elsewhere.  The 2011 budget agreement is cutting a $52 million program to help municipalities hire police and firefighters.  One city that benefited from this program…you guessed it, Camden New Jersey.

    There is a real question as to how much good an extra $100+ billion a year could do to stop urban decay in the United States, and no one is suggesting that pulling out of Afghanistan will solve all our social problems.  There may well be other priorities, but that’s the point.  We need to be asking hard questions about how best to spend our limited resources—a failing war in Afghanistan is probably not the answer.

    [i] To be clear the insurgents are identified by their ethnicity, not their political affiliation (Maoist) or even religion (Sunni versus Shia).  This suggests that ethnicity is the most important identifier.

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  7. How much can we learn about the Taliban in just seven days?

    Published: April 12th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    Now that Afghanistan is awash with rumors that the Taliban and the Karzai government may be engaged in secret talks—with the prospect of more formal peace arrangement to take place in Turkey later this year—there have been a number of articles deconstructing the Taliban in just the last week.  So what have we learned?

    *Newsweek has a who’s who guide to the Taliban.  Similar to the Karzai government, most of the senior Talibs have long complicated histories dating back to the 1990s or even earlier.  Many commanders either led forces against the Northern Alliance or were ministers under Mullah Omar.  If the Newsweek article accurately depicts the governing structure of the insurgency, there is perhaps greater hope that a comprehensive peace deal with Omar will be honored by the various Taliban groups.

    This report also raises a number of questions.  How much do we really know about the Taliban “shadow” government?  We know that many of these individuals worked under Omar previously, but how much influence does the Taliban leader still maintain?  The uniformity of the Taliban leadership is contradicted by Anand Gopal’s report from last autumn which points out that key members of the insurgency were wiling to break with the Taliban early in the war.  Their entreaties were rejected by Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai at the behest of U.S.  Also left unanswered:  how much of insurgency’s command and control structure has been compromised due to the troop surge?  The Newsweek “guide” doesn’t answer these questions, which are crucial to the coalition’s strategy going into negotiations.

    *A recent report from the Washington Post looks at the Taliban foot soldiers, and comes away with similar conclusions.  For years now, Karzai has been referring to the insurgency as his “Taliban brothers”.  Turns out, this isn’t even hyperbole.  According to this report, many families have been torn apart by the war.  The article follows two brothers—one of whom supports the U.S./Karzai, the other the Taliban.  Both acknowledge that they may face each other in battle, but also hope that some day the family can be reconciled.  As with the Newsweek article, this report probably indicates that the prospects for reconciliation are better than some might think.  To the extent that kinship ties both improve the ability to communicate with the enemy and incentivize the peace process, these familial relationships between ally and enemy can be utilized effectively.  But we should also not underestimate the tribal and ethnic divisions that do still exist.

    *Adding to this note of caution, Lael Adams writes that international forces have a fundamentally misguided view of the Taliban’s ideology.  “…the determination to preserve national and personal freedom and independence [is] the true Afghan ideology,” she writes.  She concludes that

    the international community’s refusal to reconsider the actual threat and composition of their enemy on the battlefield is based on their belief that a Talib equals a terrorist and that international troops are defending their respective homelands by fighting in Afghanistan”

    Such a belief has led to an unwillingness on the part of the coalition to forcefully push for the reconciliation process.

    For the first time since the war began, there is a broader effort to understand the enemy.  This trend could not come at a more urgent time, as reports of peace talks continue to increase.  Unfortunately there remains a decent chance that our understanding of the Taliban—from the leadership to the lowly foot soldier—remains fundamentally flawed.

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  8. The Century Foundation Report: Optimistic about Reconciliation

    Published: April 6th, 2011
    Author: Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    The Century Foundation International Taskforce on Afghanistan has produced the most comprehensive document yet on the prospects of reconciliation in Afghanistan.  Their conclusion:  a political process should be implemented immediately to end the conflict.  In order to sustain this peace process, political reforms, regional diplomacy and economic development are needed.

    As Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) Director Matt Hoh puts it, if the ASG report that was published in August were expanded by about 100 pages, it would look remarkably similar to the Century Foundation Report.  The main difference is the tone of the Century Foundation document, which remains strikingly optimistic, despite the myriad of challenges facing coalition forces.  Here are some highlights:

    There is a consensus that some sort of political process is needed
    “The war in Afghanistan may already be settling into a stalemate: Neither ISAF nor the Afghan government is likely ever to subdue the insurgency in the Pashtun heartland or indeed in other areas of the country.  Neither side can expect to vanquish the other militarily in the foreseeable future.  This growing sense of stalemate helps to set the stage for the beginning of a political phase in the conflict.”

    Although it is true that the current “stalemate” has created seemingly ideal conditions for a negotiated settlement , several challenges to reconciliation remain, including a lack of trust between the major participants, lack of coordination and control within and among insurgent groups, and perhaps most critically a lack of experience at negotiation among pro-government and pro-insurgent groups alike.

    On a similar note the Century Report reaches the right conclusion that now is the optimal time for negotiations, but they gloss over the negative effects that our current strategy has on the prospects for peace.  As several analysts have noted, the COIN strategy is killing off the more moderate leaders who are then replaced with younger, more radical insurgents making successful negotiations less likely as well as undermining any ability among insurgent leaders to enforce peace agreements.

    There is a difference between reintegration and reconciliation
    “Reintegration—understood as the effort to bring Taliban defectors, individually or in small groups, out of the insurgency and back into normal society, with jobs, income and security—is an important tactical tool in a military campaign, but is not in itself a political strategy.”

    The Century Report notes that reintegration programs are more successful once a peace settlement has been reached.  For obvious reasons, armed combatants are reluctant to throw down their weapons and re-enter society when there remains a strong chance they will be shot at.

    A Detailed Blueprint for Reconciliation
    A More Promising option, and one that in the past quarter century has had the most successful track record in bringing long standing conflicts to a negotiated end, is reliance on an internationally designated facilitator.”

    Unlike the ASG Report, the Century Reports draws up a specific blueprint for how to achieve reconciliation, first by with feelers using current communication networks, an international mediator (preferably the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan*) and finally a peace conference to settle outstanding issues.  They point out the need for confidence building measures such as a ceasefires or partial withdrawals.

    They also discuss the roll of including regional players, but seemingly miss the crucial need manage the role of spoilers.  As the Mullah Baradar saga illustrates, the Pakistani military will do everything in its power to scuttle negotiations—including the arrest and capture of high-level Taliban leaders—if it feels it is not being included in the peace process.

    In sum, of all the policy papers which have been produced since last August, the Century Foundation Task Force Report hues closest to the Afghanistan Study Group Report.  Both their interpretation of the likelihood of reconciliation and their detailed description of a potential mediation process is optimistic, nevertheless it provides a useful guide to policymakers.

    *It might be appropriate to point out that the Century Foundation Task Force Co-Chair Lakhdar Brahimi, the Former United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan, would be a natural choice to lead mediation if the UN takes this role.

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  9. The Afghanistan Weekly Reader – April 1, 2011

    Published: April 1st, 2011

    At the beginning of the week attention shifted from the U.S. mission to protect civilians against atrocities in Libya to the atrocities committed by a platoon of U.S. soldiers against unarmed villagers in southern Afghanistan. While the focus returned to the new war in Libya shortly thereafter, stories describing the bloody stalemate in America’s longest conflict continued to trickle into the news.  Commentators from across the political spectrum voiced concern that the military and the budget were being pushed to the breaking point, some also questioned whether the fighting in Libya would cause Afghanistan to once again slip beneath the radar as it had after the invasion of Iraq with consequences that are felt to this day.

    In Afghanistan, corruption cases open and close at the whim of the Karzai administration, the line between anti-government insurgent and pro-government militia member continues to blur, and millions of dollars in U.S. aid is going to the Taliban instead of the impoverished communities it is intended to benefit. A growing consensus that a negotiated settlement and de-escalation of the conflict are the only way to end the stalemate in Afghanistan ran headlong into this week’s report that the the White House and the Pentagon remain deadlocked over the July deadline to begin troop withdrawals with a showdown looming. While it is understood that painful concessions will have to be made to end the war in Afghanistan, President Obama’s promise to the American public to start bringing the troops home is one condition he must not compromise on.


    Libya action has GOP rethinking nation-building
    Washington Times by Ralph Z. Hallow

    “What are we doing in Libya?” Mr. Barbour, a former national party chairman, said last week. “I mean, we have to be careful in my mind about getting into nation-building exercises, whether it’s in Libya or somewhere else. We’ve been in Afghanistan 10 years.” …

    “We can save money on defense, and if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else,” he told an Iowa audience.

    The Year at War: The Endgame in Afghanistan
    The New York Times by James Dao
    “KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — The general arrived late, but in style, bursting into a meeting with American commanders dressed in leather bomber jacket, riding boots and creased corduroys. To his critics, he was a warlord in uniform. But on this February day, he radiated the sly charisma of a congressman on the stump.”

    Comedy of Errors in Kabul as Karzai Aide is Arrested, Then Released
    The New York Times by Rod Nordland
    The release capped a comedy of errors in which the attorney general’s office first announced the arrest of the official, Noorullah Delawari, on corruption charges, then convened a news conference to detail the charges against him. By the time the news conference took place, however, the office’s spokesman, Amanullah Eman, said that the announcement had been a “misunderstanding” and that Mr. Delawari had been questioned rather than charged

    Within Obama’s war cabinet, a looming battle over pace of Afghanistan drawdown
    The Washington Post by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
    “Military leaders and President Obama’s civilian advisers are girding for battle over the size and pace of the planned pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer, with the military seeking to limit a reduction in combat forces and the White House pressing for a withdrawal substantial enough to placate a war-weary electorate.”

    The Nation: Taking Aim At The Military Budget
    PR story on The Nation article by Robert Dreyfuss
    “For the first time since the end of the cold war, there’s a real possibility that the post-9/11 fever that sent U.S. military spending shooting upward will break and that the Pentagon’s budget will fall sharply. But it won’t be easy.”

    Western aid lines Taliban pockets in Afghanistan
    AFP by Emmanuel Duparcq
    “As the United States and its Western allies ramp up development in Afghanistan ahead of a planned military withdrawal, a significant proportion of the money spent is going to the very organisation they are here to defeat.”

    In Afghan info war, being first trumps being right
    Stars and Stripes by Nancy Montgomery
    “In the intensive information war that U.S. forces are waging against the Taliban in Helmand province, getting the message out first — before insurgents provide their own version — can trump getting the message out accurately.

    Studies done in Afghanistan and the United States have shown that people believe and remember the first reports they hear, not corrected versions, even when clear evidence shows initial reports to be wrong.”


    Is the U.S. ready to Negotiate with the Taliban?
    The Atlantic by Joshua Foust
    “Western diplomats, Taliban leaders and the Afghan government,” The New York Times recently explained, “have begun to take a hard look at what it would take to start a negotiation to end the fighting.” The details of what they report — about the demands of both sides, about preconditions for talks to happen, and about necessary outcomes once talks are concluded — are the subject of much discussion in Washington’s foreign policy circles this week, including a major report released by the Century Foundation.”

    Afghanistan war, forgotten again?
    by Jeffrey Laurenti (Century Foundation)
    So you may not have known that, just in the past few days, Taliban fighters had seized a district capital in Afghanistan’s bitterly contested Nuristan province.  Or that two former senior officials of the Kabul government had been charged with corruption and embezzlement.  Or that Taliban fighters had kidnapped 50 police recruits and sent suicide bombers to kill 24 Afghan civilians.  Or that they killed another five Western soldiers, bringing the month’s NATO fatalities to 30.

    The Kill Team Scandal: A Symbol of Fundamental Rot in the War in Afghanistan
    The Afghanistan Study Group – Will Keola Thomas
    Western officials hope that the swift prosecution of the accused soldiers will show the Afghan public that justice will be served and that the U.S. military is doing its part to combat impunity in Afghanistan. However, as was noted on this blog last week, these actions might not be enough to convince the Afghan public of the United States’ good intentions. Despite fears voiced by both NATO officials and members of the Karzai administration, massive protests have not erupted in the wake of the “Kill Team” photos’ publication. The relative quiet of Afghanistan’s streets points toward a tragic loss of faith in the foreign troops risking their lives to provide the Afghan public with security.

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  10. Reconciliation in Afghanistan: This time it’s for real?

    Published: March 1st, 2011

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    Steve Coll reports in the New Yorker that the Obama administration is engaged in secret high level talks with the Taliban.  If true, this marks an important development towards ending the conflict; Afghanistan Study Group put political reconciliation and power sharing first in its list of recommendations for a new direction in Afghan policy.  It is nice to see the Obama administration following our advice.

    Still, Coll’s revelations should be taken with a grain of salt.  We all remember the reports last fall that the U.S. was facilitating peace talks; unfortunately one of the Talib leaders with whom the U.S. was talking turned out to be a fraud, and the negotiations fizzled.  A heavy dose of skepticism is therefore warranted when it comes to anonymous sources claiming the existence of secret ongoing peace negotiations.  Nevertheless, this leak does suggest that the Obama administration is more willing to engage the Taliban than previously thought.

    One line particularly stuck out in Coll’s article:

    General David Petraeus said recently that counterinsurgency efforts in the Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces had pushed the guerrillas back. It was these perceived military gains that influenced the Administration’s decision to enter into direct talks.

    Just last week, John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick of the neo-conservative Center for New American Security argued in the New York Times that the insurgency would have to be marginalized before negotiating; a view that always seemed at odds with reality.  Now the truth comes out:  If Coll’s report is to be believed, it was actually the Americans who refused to negotiate from a position of weakness.  If the supposed military gains of the past month open up the door to a peace process, this will indeed be a positive development.

    End Note

    On the subject of reconciliation, Afghan analyst Minna Jaavenpaa has an excellent new report on the challenges of making peace in Afghanistan published by the United States Institute for Peace.  Her paper nicely compliments some of my own work on this subject.  It is well worth a read.

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