Until quite recently, it seemed that Turkey had a clearly defined role in the Middle East, from the standpoint of U.S. policy. They were the "good Muslims," who were part of NATO, who contributed troops to U.S. wars, and who had good relations with Israel.
In the past few weeks, therefore, some Americans may have been startled to see the government of Turkey seemingly playing a very different role. First, together with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran to defuse the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and forestall a controversial U.S./Israeli push for new sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Although the deal was very similar to one proposed by the Obama Administration - and Brazil and Turkey had a letter from Obama encouraging them to press forward with the deal - Obama Administration officials dismissed the deal, and far from being grateful to Turkey and Brazil, made a show of being angry. But instead of being chastened, Turkey and Brazil insisted their deal was good - invoking their letter from Obama to demonstrate their case - and insisted that the U.S. should pursue it.
The Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action, NETWORK, Just Foreign Policy and Voters for Peace (update: and other groups, see updated list of signers at end) are sending the following letter to President Obama, urging him to say yes to the Afghan government's request that the US support peace talks. An ad with the same message will run in the Politico on Wednesday, and can be viewed here:
UPDATE 5/12: the final letter, as delivered, is here:
Dear President Obama:
President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington this week will mark a critical juncture for U.S. policy in the war in Afghanistan.
After conducting “talks about talks” with Taliban leaders and intermediaries for more than a year, President Karzai will seek U.S. support to launch Afghan national reconciliation talks that include the Afghan Taliban. We strongly urge you to agree. Hindering Afghan efforts to resolve their differences can only prolong the war and increase its human suffering and material costs.
Recognition is growing that talks with Afghan insurgent leaders, including the Taliban, are essential to ending the war. President Karzai and other senior Afghan politicians support talks with the Taliban. More and more ordinary Afghans, including Afghan women professionals, believe that peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without including Taliban leaders in a national reconciliation process.
Who knew Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter would emerge as one of the most vocal opponents in the Senate of the President's military escalation in Afghanistan?
But so it is. In an op-ed this week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Specter not only challenges the "surge"; he also challenges fundamental premises of the war. Specter writes:
I'm opposed to sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan because I don't believe they are indispensable in our fight against al Qaeda.
But if al Qaeda can organize and operate out of Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, then why fight in Afghanistan, which has made a history of resisting would-be conquerors - from Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, to Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s?
What can one Senator do? Well, one Senator can introduce legislation, for starters. At this writing, there isn't a single piece of legislation before the Senate that expresses opposition to continuing the war indefinitely. This is in marked contrast to the House, where Representative McGovern's bill requiring the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy from Afghanistan has more than 100 co-sponsors. That's like having 23 Senators.
But Arlen Specter is in a unique position to do much more than introduce legislation. He could turn his Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary into a referendum on the Afghanistan war, because his primary opponent, Joe Sestak, supports the war and supports the escalation:
"Accepting Peace Prize, Obama Evokes 'Just War,'" notes the headline in the New York Times, referring to President Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. President Obama did indeed invoke the concept of a "just war." But tellingly, he did not try to argue that the U.S. war in Afghanistan meets the criteria to be judged as a "just war."
A plausible explanation for the President's failure to argue that the war in Afghanistan is a "just war" is that he recognizes that such an argument would not be convincing.
As President Obama noted in his speech, there are criteria involved in the "just war" concept. It isn't just a matter of proclaiming that a war is justified. There are tests.
This matters, because a substantial part of the U.S. and world population subscribes to the theory of "just war." In particular, more than a fifth of the U.S. population are estimated to identify as Catholics. The concept of "just war" - that wars can be considered "just" only if they meet certain criteria - is an official doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Here's part of what the official Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about this:
2307 The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
Is it just me, or is the pontification of Western leaders about corruption in Afghanistan growing rather tiresome?
There is something very Captain Renault about it. We're shocked, shocked that the Afghans have sullied our morally immaculate occupation of their country with their dirty corruption. How ungrateful can they be?
But perhaps we should consider the possibility that our occupation of the country is not so morally immaculate - indeed, that the most corrupt racket going in Afghanistan today is the American occupation.
US military officials in Kabul estimate that a minimum of 10 percent of the Pentagon's logistics contracts in Afghanistan consists of protection payments to insurgents, Aram Roston reports in The Nation. In southern Afghanistan - where General McChrystal wants to send more troops - security firms can't physically protect convoys of American military supplies. There's no practical way to move the supplies without paying the Taliban. So, like Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22, we're supplying both sides of the war.
All hands on deck, Obama Nation. The ship of state is turning.
The New York Times reports:
President Obama's national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.
This shift means that President Obama will not have to approve General McChrystal's request for 40,000 more troops:
the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.
Finally, the Administration is going to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban, an indigenous Afghan movement with Afghan goals, and Al Qaeda, a global movement with a global agenda of attacking the United States:
"Clearly, Al Qaeda is a threat not only to the U.S. homeland and American interests abroad, but it has a murderous agenda," one senior administration official said in an interview initiated by the White House on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity because the strategy review has not been finished. "We want to destroy its leadership, its infrastructure and its capability."
The official contrasted that with the Afghan Taliban, which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States. "When the two are aligned, it's mainly on the tactical front," the official said, noting that Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters in Afghanistan.
The Taliban cannot be removed from Afghanistan, Team Obama says:
With the passage of the war supplemental by the Senate, President Obama and Congress are "doubling down" on war in Afghanistan. Are we - and the Afghan people - doomed to endure many more years of war?
There is no reason that we need be, according to yesterday's New York Times, which reports that talks between Taliban leaders and Afghan government representatives have accelerated since Obama's election, and that Afghan officials say they have the tacit blessing of Washington for the talks.
Furthermore, the demands being put forward by the Taliban in the negotiations appear, on the face of it, to be eminently reasonable.
Daoud Abedi, one of the intermediaries in the talks, told the Times he had hammered out a common set of demands between the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group. The groups agreed to stop fighting if those conditions were met, Abedi said.
The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.
Is there anything here which appears unreasonable on its face?
- Pullback to bases: this was a demand of the Iraqi government, which the US eventually agreed to a version of.
- Cease-fire: a standard element of any peace plan.
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.
A progressive Congressional staffer once told me: "The first rule of Congress is - if you have the opportunity to vote both ways on the same issue, do it."
In "narrowing" the goals for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, President Obama appears to have obeyed the first rule of Congress. In his speech on Afghanistan, Obama had it both ways.
He asserted that "we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" and that "we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future."
At the same time he struck out against an assumed threat of a "return to Taliban rule," and insisted that al Qaeda terrorists "would accompany the core Taliban leadership," which arguably implies that the set of U.S. goals may not have narrowed very much, and that the U.S. is indeed still trying to control Afghanistan and dictate its future.
It's a shame. He could have made a different choice. He could still make a different choice. And, I suspect, he will, eventually, be compelled to make a different choice. The real question, I suspect, is how long it will be before he is compelled to make a different choice, and how many Americans and Afghans will die for no reason in the meantime.
Just as the Obama Administration has finally been compelled to admit that there is no way out of the US financial crisis without the temporary nationalization of big financial institutions, so too the Obama Administration will eventually be compelled to admit that there is no way out of Afghanistan that does not pass through peace talks between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies.
How many will die in the meantime?
President Obama is expected to "announce" his "new" Afghanistan strategy Friday -- the traditional Washington day for burying things. But there aren't likely to be many surprises. The administration has been dribbling details out to the news media, and what has been foreshadowed includes: more troops, more civilians, narrower goals; a renewed concession, perhaps, that there is no military solution.
It is widely recognized that sending more people - whether soldiers or civilians - is very unlikely in itself to change anything fundamental, because the order of magnitude is wrong. The United States has not been, is not, and almost certainly never will be willing and able to commit the resources which would be necessary to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful "democracy" according to the present policy. The most that could be plausibly hoped for is that additional resources would help make a new policy work: a new policy based on a fundamental, political shift in US policy, including accommodation with the bulk of the political forces now backing Afghanistan's various insurgencies.
And therefore, it matters little in the big scheme of things how many new troops President Obama announces. If there is no real change in policy, new troops won't accomplish anything. If there is a real change in policy, any success will be due much more to the policy change than to the "troop surge" under the cover of which the policy change takes place.
What finally matters are the answers to four questions that are only now beginning to be asked.
1. Will the United States support political negotiations between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies?