Obama: Say Yes to Afghan Peace Talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai. CC license: pingnews.comAfghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week, where he’ll be meeting with President Obama on Wednesday. Afghan government officials have said that a top priority for these talks is to win President Obama’s full support for the Afghan government’s efforts to reconcile with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency in order to end the war.

On its merits, saying yes to the Afghan government’s request for U.S. support for peace talks would seem like a no-brainer.

If Hamid Karzai is the legitimate president of Afghanistan, then his government’s policy of national reconciliation ought to take precedence over Pentagon demands for more killing. Of course, if Hamid Karzai is not the legitimate president of Afghanistan, then Western forces must leave the country as soon as is humanly possible, because they have no legitimate basis to remain.

If the opinions of the Afghan public matter to U.S. policy, then the Afghan public’s demand for peace talks ought to take precedence over Pentagon demands for more killing. Of course, if the opinions of the Afghan public don’t matter to U.S. policy, then everyone in Washington pontificating about “democracy” or “governance” or “legitimacy” or “corruption” in Afghanistan ought to shut up immediately.

Consensus for Peace

According to every Western press report from Afghanistan, an overwhelming consensus of public opinion in Afghanistan supports peace talks to end the war. Just last week, Jonathan Steele reported in the Guardian that across Afghanistan, talking to the Taliban is seen as “the only credible way” to end the war, “even among Afghanistan’s small but determined group of woman professionals.” Steele interviews a range of Afghan professional women to illustrate his point.

“Everybody has been trying to kill the Taliban but they’re still there, stronger than ever,” Member of Parliament Shukria Barakzai explains why she supports peace talks. “They are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that. Every war has to end with talks and negotiations. Afghans need peace like oxygen. People want to keep their villages free of violence and suicide bombers.”

If “Afghan women now overwhelmingly want talks with the Taliban,” Steele writes, “the same is true of many of the country’s male politicians, particularly the Pashtun.” The perception of many Pashtun politicians is that the U.S. invasion put the warlords of the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance in power, marginalizing the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. These Pashtun politicians see a national reconciliation process and new political dispensation with the primarily Pashtun Taliban as a way to end this marginalization of the Pashtuns and incorporate them into the government.

U.S. Temporizing

U.S. officials concede that the endgame is a negotiated political solution with the Afghan Taliban. But Washington insists that the “time is not right” because “the Taliban have no reason to negotiate,” and that we have to kill more of them to “force the Taliban to the negotiating table.” Many pro-war pundits in Washington act as if they believe these assertions. But these assertions are inconsistent with a U.S. policy of pursuing peace and little evidence has been advanced to support them.

Meanwhile, considerable evidence suggests the contrary: that talks between the United States and senior Taliban leaders now could be productive. Note that a significant component of the Afghan insurgency has already put a peace plan on the table, as reported in The New York Times. In March, a delegation from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami presented a formal 15-point peace plan to the Afghan government. A spokesman for the delegation said the bulk of the Afghan Taliban would be willing to go along with the plan, if a date were set for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.

When the U.S. government decides to attack a problem diplomatically, it emphasizes common interests and opportunities for agreement, seeking to expand the political space for diplomacy. This has been equally true under Democratic and Republican administrations, and was true even under the Bush administration. That the U.S. government is downplaying the prospect of peace strongly indicates that it isn’t trying to achieve peace. So when U.S. government officials claim that the Taliban aren’t ready for peace, they are really just restating what we already know: that the U.S. government isn’t ready for peace.

It’s breathtaking that the Washington punditocracy can continue to insist that there is no basis for peace talks and completely ignore credible claims that the bulk of the insurgency is ready to support the peace plan on the table, if foreign forces agree to a timetable for withdrawal. Of course, from the standpoint of hawk pundits, a peace plan that requires a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces is a “non-starter.”

Support for Timetable Grows

In the United States, however, support for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces is growing, particularly among Democrats. Already, 82 members of Congress have co-sponsored Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-MA) bill requiring a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, including such liberal heavyweights as Barney Frank and Henry Waxman. Among House Democrats from Obama’s home state of Illinois, it’s now 2-1 in favor of a timetable for withdrawal, with Reps. Costello, Schakowsky, Davis, Gutierrez, Jackson, Quigley, Hare, and Rush cosponsoring McGovern’s bill, leaving only Reps. Bean, Foster, Halvorson, and Lipinski still on the sidelines.

When we compel the U.S. government to accept the policy of a timetable for military withdrawal, we’ll have removed the fundamental U.S. obstacle to peace in Afghanistan.

Until now, only a handful of voices in the U.S. debate have openly called for real U.S. support of Afghan peace talks, such as Ahmed Rashid writing in The Washington Post, Robert Dreyfuss writing in The Nation, Tom Hayden writing in The Los Angeles Times, and Gareth Porter in his reporting for Inter Press Service.

But now that Karzai is meeting with Obama for the purpose of securing a U.S. agreement to back Afghan peace talks, it’s time to make U.S. public support for peace talks more visible. To this end, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action, and Just Foreign Policy are placing an ad in the Politico on Wednesday, calling on Obama to say yes when Karzai asks him to support peace talks in Afghanistan.

It’s time for supporters of peace talks to end the war to “come out of the closet.” It’s time to publicly state the obvious: only peace talks can end the war, and the sooner such talks start the sooner the war can end.

Robert Naiman is policy director of Just Foreign Policy and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.