When a Member of Congress dies, sometimes other Members name a bill after that Member that advances some cause identified with the Member. So, for example, we had the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act" - Kennedy was a champion of volunteer service.
Such naming has multiple effects. Of course it honors the departed. But, like the Spanish hero El Cid, whose companions suited him up and placed him on his horse to drive off their foes, it also gives the departed one last ride into battle. When you name something the "Our esteemed colleague who just passed" Act, you're laying down a challenge - don't leave this one on the cutting room floor. And everyone gets to cheat death a little by giving the departed one last accomplishment associated with that person's name.
The uncompleted challenge of Richard Holbrooke's diplomatic career was a peace deal in Afghanistan. It was the hope of many that Holbrooke would help broker a peace deal between the warring factions in Afghanistan and between their regional patrons that would end the war. This hope was encouraged by Holbrooke's role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
This unfinished business was apparently very much on Holbrooke's mind as they prepared him for surgery from which, presumably, he had some inkling that he might not return.
"You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," Holbrooke said, according to family members.
Are peace talks to end the war a pipe dream? Not according to many Afghanistan experts with decades of experience in the country.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post carried a remarkable article reporting that according to U.S. government assessments, the U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan has failed.
The Post's Greg Miller reported that
An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency
Miller explains why this is so:
Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.
"The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience," said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to "reestablish and rejuvenate," often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, "I don't see it."
So, since the policy of military escalation has failed, according to the U.S. government's own assessments, we should expect that in December, when President Obama promised that the policy will be reviewed, we should see a fundamental change in policy. Right?
But, according to the same Washington Post report, "no major change in strategy is expected in December."
How could it be, that the policy has failed, according to official U.S. government assessments, and yet no change is expected when the promised review occurs?
You can't follow U.S. print media coverage of the war in Afghanistan for any length of time without running into some variation of the following assertion:
"The Taliban Will Never Negotiate, As Long As They Think They're Winning."
No serious effort is usually made to substantiate this claim, which is asserted as if it were a self-evident truth. What you generally don't see, reading the newspapers, is a sentence that looks like this:
"The Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning, and the reason that we know this is...."
Yet, if you look back over the course of the last year, the assertion that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning" is a very important claim. Why did the U.S. send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last year? Because "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning." Why are we killing innocents today in Kandahar? "Because the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning."
A claim that is a key buttress of life and death decisions about people we have never met and know little about and who have no say in our decisions, and yet which has never been substantiated, is a claim that deserves sustained scrutiny.
How could it be a self-evident truth that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they're winning?" Logically, two possibilities present themselves:
1) It is an immutable fact of human nature that no party engaged in a conflict ever negotiates as long as they think they're winning. The US never negotiates as long as it thinks it is winning; Britain never has; France never has; no guerilla army or insurgent movement ever has.
There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. "There are three ways to get out," goes one waggish response. "Air, land, and sea."
This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else's notion of what is practical.
On the other hand, peace activists can't be satisfied with being right; they also are morally compelled to try to be effective. And part of being effective is giving consideration to, and seeking to publicize, arguments are likely to end the war sooner rather than later. It's not likely, for example, that discussing ways in which the war might be useful for the long-term maintenance of the "capitalist world system" will turn the Washington debate against war in the short run. If, on the other hand, central to the official story is a claim that the war is a war against Al Qaeda, but senior U.S. officials publicly concede that there is no significant Al Qaeda presence today in Afghanistan, that is certainly a fact worth knowing and spreading.
The majority of Americans want the Obama Administration to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, CBS News reports. 54% think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, with 41% opposed. Among Democrats, 73% think the U.S. should set a timetable, with 21% opposed; among independents, 54% support a withdrawal timetable, with 40% opposed; among Republicans, 32% support a withdrawal timetable, with 66% opposed.
Two weeks ago today, Members of the House of Representatives were polled on a similar proposition, when the House voted on an amendment introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern [D-MA], Rep. David Obey [D-WI], and Rep. Walter Jones [R-NC] that would have required the President to establish a timetable for the redeployment of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. That amendment failed, with 153 Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voting yes, and 98 Democrats voting no; while 9 Republicans voted yes and 162 Republicans voted no. So in the McGovern-Obey-Jones "poll," Democrats in the House were 60%-38% in favor of a withdrawal timetable, while House Republicans were 91%-5% against.
If Democratic and Republican voters in the CBS poll had been allowed to stand in for Democrats and Republicans in the House two weeks ago (ignoring independents, also pro-timetable), the McGovern amendment would have passed 243-171, with 186 Democrats and 57 Republicans voting yes, and 54 Democrats and 117 Republicans voting no.
A commonly proffered argument against negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan has been: "why should the Afghan Taliban negotiate, when they think they are winning?" For many months, this argument was offered by Administration officials to explain why they would not yet pursue serious negotiations with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban.
More recently, Administration officials are saying that they have moved significantly.
Washington is eager to make [peace negotiations with high-ranking insurgents] happen - perhaps more eager than most Americans realize. "There was a major policy shift that went completely unreported in the last three months," a senior administration official tells Newsweek..."We're going to support Afghan-led reconciliation [with the Taliban]." U.S. officials have quietly dropped the Bush administration's resistance to talks with senior Taliban and are doing whatever they can to help Karzai open talks with the insurgents, although they still say any Taliban willing to negotiate must renounce violence, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution. (Some observers predict that those preconditions may eventually be fudged into goals.)
The Administration's shift - if real - is tremendously good news for ending the war. But even if this accurately reflects the intentions of the Administration, the arguments made earlier against serious negotiations are still politically powerful, in part because the Administration made them, and will likely be thrown back in the Administration's face by some of its Republican critics if efforts at a negotiated settlement begin to bear fruit. Therefore, these arguments still need to be countered, even if the Administration is no longer making them.
In the next several weeks, Congress is likely to be asked to approve $33 billion more for the war in Afghanistan, mainly to pay for the current military escalation, whose focus is the planned assault on the Afghan city of Kandahar.
Some Members of Congress will vote no on the funding. A larger group of Members is likely to support efforts to pass language which would require an exit strategy or timetable for ending the war.
Barring some unforeseen event - like Afghan President Karzai joining the Taliban - an extrapolation from the recent past would suggest that neither efforts to block the funding, nor efforts to constrain it with real conditions, are likely to be narrowly "successful" in the short-run: extrapolating from the past, the most likely short-run legislative outcome is that the war money will be approved without conditions attached that would significantly constrain the war. This is especially true if 95% of Congressional Republicans continue to vote as a bloc to support the war.
Nonetheless, the fight over the war supplemental is tremendously important, because Congressional pressure can move Administration policy, even when critics of Administration policy don't command a majority of votes. This is especially true when, as in this case, critics are in the majority in the President's own party, and when, as in this case, the policy under pressure is an international policy which is also under significant international pressure.
In the last week the New York Times and Inter Press Service have reported that the Obama Administration is having an internal debate on whether to supports talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, including Mullah Muhammad Omar, as a means of ending the war in Afghanistan. Senior officials like Vice President Biden are said to be more open to reaching out because they believe it will help shorten the war.
Wouldn't it be remarkable if this remained merely an "internal debate" within the Obama Administration? Wouldn't you expect that the part of public opinion that wants the war to end would try to intervene in this debate on behalf of talks in order to end the war?
As an administration official told the New York Times,
"Today, people agree that part of the solution for Afghanistan is going to include an accommodation with the Taliban, even above low- and middle-level fighters."
And in fact, US and British officials have been saying for months that the "endgame" in Afghanistan includes a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban.
Now, suppose you tell Mom that you want to have ice cream. And Mom says, you can have ice cream when you've eaten your spinach. Wouldn't you eat your spinach? If you don't eat your spinach now, you didn't want ice cream very badly.
The top United Nations official for Afghanistan has called for direct talks with senior Taliban leaders. Is anyone in Washington listening?
The New York Times reported Sunday that Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, "called on Afghan officials to seek the removal of at least some senior Taliban leaders from the United Nations' list of terrorists, as a first step toward opening direct negotiations with the insurgent group."
Eide also called on the U.S. to speed its review of the roughly 750 detainees in its military prisons in Afghanistan - another principal grievance of Taliban leaders.
Eide said he hoped that the two steps would open the way for face-to-face talks between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders.
"If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," Mr. Eide said. "I think the time has come to do it."
It's an unquestioned dogma in official Washington that while of course every informed person knows that the endgame in Afghanistan is a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, the time is not ripe for negotiations; the Afghan Taliban have to be weakened first through military escalation, because their leaders are not ready to talk peace.
It's never explained how U.S. officals know that Afghan Taliban leaders are not ready to talk peace, unless the definition of "talking peace" is "acceding to U.S. demands." A reasonable inference is that these statements by U.S. officials are a dodge: U.S. officials are not ready to talk peace.
It's a time-honored Washington tradition. If you want to bully the government into doing something unpopular and the public into accepting it, manufacture a false emergency. Iraq war? If you don't approve it, mushroom cloud. Banker or IMF bailout? If you don't approve it, financial collapse. Social security privatization? If you don't approve it, the system will go "bankrupt." Our brand is crisis, as James Carville might say.
General McChrystal says that if President Obama does not approve 40,000 more U.S. troops for Afghanistan, and approve them right away, "our mission" - whatever that is - will likely "fail" - whatever that is.
But even if President Obama were to approve General McChrystal's request, the 40,000 troops wouldn't arrive in time to significantly affect the 12-month window McChrystal says will be decisive. So McChrystal's request isn't about what's happening in Afghanistan right now. It's about how many troops the U.S. will have in Afghanistan a year from now and beyond.
There is no emergency requiring a quick decision by President Obama. The current situation in Afghanistan is being used as a bloody shirt to try to lock America into to an endless war, and, as Andrew Bacevich argues in the Boston Globe, lock the Obama Administration into the continuation of military force as the main instrument of U.S. foreign policy.
The Washington Post reports:
In his 66-page assessment of the war, McChrystal warns that the next 12 months will probably determine whether U.S. and international forces can regain the initiative from the Taliban.