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.
A major contribution of the "inside experts" Afghanistan Study Group report (read here ; send to your reps in Congress here), released last week to spur Washington debate towards de-escalating the war at the next fork in the road is that its very first recommendation is this:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
Predictably, there appear to have been two principal objections so far to this proposal:
1. Oh my God. How dare you suggest that the U.S. should support a peace deal with the Afghan insurgency. You must be some kind of amoral monster.
2. Ho hum. Nothing new here. Everyone already knows this. Why do you tax our patience by stating the obvious as if it were a profound revelation? This is already Administration policy. Move along, nothing to see here.
It should go without saying that these two objections are, as a matter of logic, mutually exclusive. A real peace process leading to a new political dispensation in Afghanistan that ends the civil war could be the worst idea in human history, or it could be a commonplace that everyone already knows and is already Administration policy. But it cannot be both.
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.
President Obama wants credit for keeping his promise to end the war in Iraq. Some credit is due: the President reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, as required by the agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. But only partial credit is due, because the war-ending task is very far from complete.
The Iraq war is not over. This is not a left-wing critique. The consensus account of mainstream U.S. print media is that the 50,000 U.S. troops who remain have been "rebranded" from "combat" brigades to advise-and-assist brigades. The unfailingly pro-war Washington Post editorial board wrote yesterday:
For one thing, combat won't really end on Sept. 1. Fifty thousand U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, and their duties will include counterterrorism work as well as continuing to train and assist Iraqi forces....
Moreover, the United States government is still "meddling" in Iraq's internal political affairs, to use the term our media uses when countries we don't like do it. U.S. officials are still trying to determine who will be in the Iraqi government and who should not. This is a key factor in the current political impasse in Baghdad, a fact which is generally omitted in mainstream press accounts that bemoan the failure of Iraqi politicians to form a government. It's true that there is a failure on the part of Iraqi politicians, but they have enablers in their failure: the outside powers, including the U.S., Iran, and other countries, which are lobbying furiously for a government to their liking, and working to block any government that they don't like. The impasse between the Iraqi politicians is also an impasse between the outside powers, fighting a proxy political war for influence in Iraq.
Much ink has been spilled over the President's pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. The White House insists that the date is firm. But the pace of withdrawal is yet to be determined, and the White House hasn't said a word about when - if ever - a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan will be complete.
There is a signed agreement that says U.S. troops have to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But there is no such agreement for Afghanistan. Yet the majority of Americans have told pollsters that they think the U.S. should establish a timetable for military withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Walter Pincus reports in the Washington Post, the Pentagon is planning for years of U.S. combat in Afghanistan:
"Three $100 million air base expansions in southern and northern Afghanistan illustrate Pentagon plans to continue building multimillion-dollar facilities in that country to support increased U.S. military operations well into the future."
Pincus noted that "…many of the installations being built…have extended time horizons. None of the three projects…is expected to be completed until the latter half of 2011. All of them are for use by U.S. forces rather than by their Afghan counterparts."
But Pincus also reported that while the House has approved the money for this "enduring base" construction, the Senate has yet to vote on it.
Should there not at least be a debate on this issue in the Senate?
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.
No reasonable person would have bet serious money that news editors at the New York Times would be huge fans of Oliver Stone's new documentary about South America, "South of the Border." A key point of the film is that mainstream US press coverage of South America in recent years has generally followed State Department priorities more than objective news standards. The New York Times comes in for specific criticism in the film, which notes that the paper editorially backed the short-lived US-backed coup against the democratically-elected government of Venezuela in 2002. (Key evidence on the U.S. role in the coup can be found here. After the coup collapsed, the Times half-apologized for its pro-coup editorial, as also noted in the film.)
But still, accepting that no-one likes to be criticized, there are supposed to be rules for newspapers like the Times. In an editorial, they can express any opinion they want. But news articles are supposed to be accurate, and if a reporter has a direct interest or bias in a situation, the paper should assign another reporter or at least disclose the interest or bias.
But on Friday, the New York Times ran an attack on Oliver Stone's documentary by Larry Rohter, an attack that claimed the film was full of inaccuracies. Not only was the New York Times attack itself inaccurate in its factual claims, as documented by Oliver Stone, Mark Weisbrot, and Tariq Ali in their response - do they have fact-checkers at the Times?
Today is the seventh anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie in Gaza by Israeli government bulldozer, and the anniversary this year comes at an unusually bad time in US-Israel relations - by which I mean, of course, that it comes at an unusually wonderful time in US-Israel relations, one of those rare times in which the US appears to put some real effort into establishing narrower boundaries for Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians.
It's easy for long-time observers to be cynical. We've seen it all before: strong words from the US to Israel followed by abject retreats. And there's something in our collective consciousness that counts false hope a greater danger than false pessimism. The pessimist will be right more often; but the optimist will contribute more to positive social change. Each person has to ask herself which is more important: to be right more often, or to contribute more to positive social change?
It's not every day that the press carries reports that the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, the top military commander of all our armed forces, and the Vice-President of the United States are telling Israel that its treatment of the Palestinians is endangering US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Mark Perry notes in the cover story at Foreign Policy, "There are important and powerful lobbies in America.... But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military."
I don't know about all you commiepinkos, but I believe we should Support Our Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, and Vice-President Biden say that Israel's actions toward the Palestinians are putting our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in danger. That's why, to Support Our Troops, the U.S. government must effectively pressure Israel to end its military occupation of the West Bank. And one thing every American can do to Support Our Troops is to shun products from companies linked to the Israeli occupation.
In January, Foreign Policy reports, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus sent senior military officers to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the perception of the U.S.' Arab allies that the U.S. was failing to pressure Israel to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
On foreign policy, while the President said some good things, he missed key opportunities to say better things. In particular, he missed opportunities to promote reconciliation as an essential way of ending our wars and promoting peace. In speaking about U.S. domestic politics, the President is eloquent in his efforts to promote reconciliation, but he seems to have lost his voice in applying these ideas to our foreign policy.
The President renewed his promise to end the war in Iraq, including his promise to have all U.S. combat troops out by August, and to bring all of our troops home from Iraq. He also said we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and partner with Iraqis to promote peace and prosperity. But there was a key omission here: the word "reconciliation." Hundreds of candidates have been disqualified from running in the March parliamentary election; Sunni and secular candidates have been particularly targeted. If this move is allowed to stand, reconciliation in Iraq will be imperiled, the civil war could be reignited, and Iraq's relationship with its predominantly Sunni Arab neighbors would be further strained. The U.S. is working to overturn the exclusion; by refering more explicitly to those efforts, the President could have promoted Iraqi reconciliation.