Barack Obama and top administration officials have taken advantage of the killing of Osama bin Laden to establish a new narrative suggesting the event will pave the way for negotiations with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan.
That good news message, reported by Washington Post senior editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran Tuesday, suggested that the administration would now be able to negotiate a deal that would make it possible for the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
The Chandrasekaran article quoted a “senior administration official” as saying that bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces “presents an opportunity for reconciliation that didn't exist before”. The official suggested that administration officials were seeking to “leverage the death into a spark that ignites peace talks”.
The claim of new prospects for peace conveyed to Chandrasekaran appears to be dependent mainly on the assumption that the Taliban leaders in Pakistan will now fear that they will be captured or killed by the U.S. forces, as was bin Laden.
An official familiar with administration policy discussions on Afghanistan said the fact that the United States could locate and kill bin Laden “so deep inside Pakistan” is presumed to “have an impact on the Taliban's thinking”.
The idea that U.S. policy is now on the road to an “endgame” in Afghanistan glosses over a central problem: the publicly expressed U.S. determination to keep a U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan indefinitely is not an acceptable condition to the Taliban as a basis for negotiations.
The Chandrasekaran report anticipated the announcement soon of a “strategic partnership agreement” between the United States and the government of President Hamid Karzai as “another potential catalyst for talks”.
But that agreement is likely to reduce the Taliban willingness to open negotiations with the United States rather than increase it, because it is expected to include a provision for a long-term U.S. military presence to conduct “counterterrorism operations” as well as training.
None of the Taliban officials interviewed by Pakistani officials on behalf of the United States last year said that there could be a peace agreement in which U.S. troops would be allowed to stay in Afghanistan.
“There is no doubt that the number one aim of the Taliban in negotiations would be getting the U.S. States military to leave,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a programme officer at the Century Foundation, who attended meetings held by a task force sponsored by the foundation with a wide range of Taliban and former Taliban officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hanna said the signing of an agreement for a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan “would not be a helpful step” for starting peace negotiations.
The new narrative portrays the Obama administration as sharply divided between military and Pentagon leaders who want to maximise the number of troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible and some civilian advisers who want a much bigger and faster drawdown.
But that description of the policy debate on Afghanistan, which is accurate as far as it goes, fails to make clear that the civilians in question – including Obama himself – are not aiming at withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, even if there is a negotiated agreement with the Taliban.
In an interview with 60 Minutes airing Sunday night, Obama says the bin Laden killing “reconfirms that we can focus on Al-Qaeda, focus on the threats to our homeland, train Afghans in a way that allows them to stabilise their country. But we don't need to have a perpetual footprint of the size we have now.”
Obama's statement hints at his intention to continue to maintain a much smaller military “footprint” in Afghanistan for many years to come.
The Chandrasekaran report suggested that that the real obstacle to beginning talks has been the unwillingness of the Taliban to renounce its ties with Al-Qaeda.
But there is no need for more pressure on the Taliban on the issue of its ties with Al-Qaeda, according to observers who have met with Taliban officials.
Well before bin Laden's assassination, some senior Taliban officials with ties to the Quetta Shura made statements to the Century Foundation Task Force that appeared to be open to such a commitment. “They said this can happen – something to that effect – as part of an agreement,” recalled Jeffrey Laurenti, director of foreign policy programmes for the Century Foundation, who accompanied task force members in those meetings.
In early December 2009, the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – the official name by which the Taliban identifies itself – sent out a statement to press organisations declaring it had “no agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantees if foreign forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan.”
Although it did not explicitly mention Al-Qaeda in the statement, it was clearly a response to the Obama administration pointing to Taliban ties with Al-Qaeda as central to the rationale for the U.S.- NATO war.
But the Taliban are not expected to make a declaration explicitly naming Al-Qaeda in advance of an agreement, much less before negotiations begin. “It makes no sense for the Taliban to concede this point on the front end – without receiving any commensurate concession from the other side,” the Century Foundation's Hanna told Associated Press this week.
“They portray any pre-emptive severing of ties as a type of unilateral partial disarmament,” he added.
The new narrative also suggests that the killing of bin Laden may now reduce another obstacle to peace negotiations – Pakistani policy. U.S. officials were said to believe that Pakistani officials had “interfered with peace efforts in the past”, but now that Pakistan is under fire for possible complicity in bin Laden's living near the capital for years, “have an opportunity to play a more constructive role”.
Pakistani policy has opposed peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan regime behind Pakistan's back. But contrary to the new narrative, Pakistan has been more eager to begin peace negotiations than the United States.
Pakistan has long complained that it was not being informed about U.S. negotiating aims and strategy – especially with whom the United States is willing to talk and whether it hopes to impose stiff demands on the Taliban through military force. Speaking at the New America Foundation Apr. 22, Pakistani Foreign Minister Salman Bashir hinted strongly that his government disagrees with the U.S. strategy of hoping that military pressure will yield a better settlement.
“In Islamabad we have our own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan,” said the foreign minister. “The U.S. says the momentum of the Taliban has been halted, but is fragile and reversible. Our own assessment is that the security situation has continued to deteriorate.”
The new Obama administration narrative seems to suggest that Pakistan will now display a less sceptical attitude toward the U.S. diplomatic strategy and urge the Taliban to negotiate despite the signals of U.S. determination to keep a long-term military presence in Afghanistan.