Like all Afghans, Hamid Karzai knows history. Which is why he's talking to the neo-Taliban. The postmodern heirs to the Islamist government Bush deposed in 2001, the generation of madrassah graduates who replaced the mujahadeen vets of the anti-Soviet jihad are gaining strength. Obama, preparing for his 2012 reelection campaign by distancing himself from an unpopular war, plans to start pulling out U.S. troops next year.
Men like Karzai, puppets of foreign occupiers, rarely die peaceful deaths in Afghanistan. Mohammad Najibullah, the former Soviet-appointed head of the secret police who became president under the occupation, was extracted from a U.N. compound where he had taken refuge when Kabul fell in 1996. The Taliban dragged him from the back of a jeep, disemboweled him, cut off his penis and forced him to eat it before hanging him from a lamppost.
Cutting a power-sharing deal with the Taliban may not be possible. But Karzai has to try.
But his American overseers are against dialogue. "With regards to reconciliation," CIA director Leon Panetta told ABC's "This Week," "unless (the neo-Taliban is) convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful."
We Americans have heard this line of policy so often that we don't think to question it. Never negotiate from a position of weakness. First thrash your adversary. Negotiate afterward.
Insisting upon "peace with honor," Nixon took Kissinger's advice to bomb the hell out of North Vietnam before the Paris peace talks. There's a certain logic to this approach, but no common sense. Three years later, the U.S. lost the same as if it had never dropped a single bomb.
John McCain echoed Nixon at a Senate hearing this week: "If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan -- whether we reach it before July 2011, or afterward -- he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor, which is what we all want."
Win. Then withdraw.
The best time to talk to your opponent -- assuming that he's willing to take your calls -- is when you're losing. Any concession you gain will be more than you'll otherwise end up with.
If you're going to win a war, on the other hand, why talk?
When the U.S. is winning, it refuses to negotiate. Certain of victory, it insisted upon the unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany in 1945.
Panetta's statement provides two insights to those who seek to understand U.S. foreign policy.
On a basic level, it parrots Kissinger: The U.S. knows that it will lose in Afghanistan. Withdrawal is inevitable; indeed, it has been announced. America's next step is a massively violent final offensive -- in order to prove to the neo-Taliban that it could win if it really wanted to. So they'd better cut us some slack: oil, gas and mineral concessions, etc. Of course, this reflects a radical misreading of the neo-Taliban as well as of human nature. They understand the simple truth: they live there, and we don't. Time is on their side. The oppressor's greatest weakness is his inability to see things from a different point of view.
Moreover, bomb-first-then-talk is a (partly delusional) lie. If by some miracle the upcoming anti-Afghan offensive were to work, the U.S. would never open talks with the neo-Taliban. Whenever the U.S. thinks it holds the upper hand -- Cuba since 1962, Iran since 1980, Iraq before the 2003 invasion -- it refuses to engage. Only when something tips the balance in favor of a U.S. adversary -- North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, for example -- is it willing to chat.
More broadly and interestingly, the Panetta Doctrine helps us resolve the big mystery of U.S. actions abroad after 1945.
The United States hasn't won a war since World War II. More curiously, it doesn't seem to want to. When the U.S. invades, it often fails to occupy, much less annex. When it occupies, it does so with fewer soldiers than necessary to control its newly acquired territory. (Note that General Colin Powell, a rare proponent among the military elite of "flooding the zone" with hundreds of thousands of troops to ensure total domination of occupied countries, was quickly replaced as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. His "Powell Doctrine," though romanticized by some members of the press, is now forgotten.)
The U.S. has been described as an "empire without empire." It's clearer to call it the Great Disrupter. It's fairly safe to conclude that U.S.'s primary foreign policy objective is to disrupt potentially emerging regional rivals. Iran, for example, is the nation that should logically dominate the Middle East politically and economically. It possesses immense wealth, enviable geography, 5,000 years of civilization, modern infrastructure, and a big, highly educated workforce. The U.S. uses sanctions to prevent Iran's rise to regional superpower.
You didn't really think we were still holding a grudge over the hostages, did you?
From a geopolitical standpoint, U.S. policymakers are far more concerned about India's potential role as the leader of South Asia than the threat that North Korea will nuke Seattle. Which is why the Bush Administration sent billions of dollars in military hardware and cash subsidies to the violently anti-Indian government of General Pervez Musharraf after 9/11. Now Musharraf is out and the current Pakistani government has reduced its pressure on India via, for example, its support for Muslim fighters in Kashmir. So Obama continues to finance Pakistan -- but not as much.
Naturally, we can't talk to the neo-Taliban. (Nor can we let Karzai do so.) An Afghanistan that resumes its 1996-to-2001 role as the global capital of Islamist government and Sharia law could represent a new kind of influence -- simultaneously religious, political and military -- that the U.S. fears as much as Iran, India, or any other country big enough to suck away American market share.
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