Opinion

The Great Debate

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What we don’t know about Qatar and what we don’t know about key Senate races

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Qatari Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha

1. Inside Qatar:  the terrorists’ benefactor and America’s friend

As the war in Gaza continues, we keep hearing that one pipeline for negotiations with Hamas goes through Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich kingdom in the Gulf that has friendly relations with Hamas. In fact, Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas and provides financial support.

According to the online Times of Israel, “Qatar continues to fund the movement’s terror apparatus abroad, enabling tunnel digging and rocket launching.”

The United States, like Israel, has branded Hamas a terrorist group and, over the weekend, stepped up its criticism of the Qataris’ support of Hamas. Yet Washington maintains friendly relations with Qatar. The bond is so tight that the largest U.S. military base in the region is there.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah before the opening session of the Syrian Donors Conference at Bayan Palace in Kuwait CityIt’s through Qatar that the United States negotiated with the Taliban for the freedom of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Qatar was the go-between for the release of five high-value Taliban officers, who were being held captive at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl.

The freed Taliban fighters are now living in, yes, Qatar, where the Taliban’s leaders maintain an office and homes under Qatari protection.

Bergdahl reveals the impossible choices faced by hostages’ families

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border

The furor surrounding the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl this week has exposed the murky world — and impossible choices — of the families of Americans taken captive by militants.

Demands for vast ransoms or for prisoner releases put these families in the excruciating position of seeming to be able to save a loved one’s life. Meet demands and your beloved lives. Hesitate and carry responsibility for their death to your grave.

Yet few families have access to the sums of money that militants demand. Nor can they free prisoners held by the United States or a local government. Despite the fact that the families feel primary responsibility, they have no real control.

Leave no soldier behind – no exceptions

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The deal for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s return has hardly generated the praise the Obama administration might have hoped. Hard questions abound.

Will negotiating with terrorists encourage them to snatch more Americans? Is freeing five hardened Taliban leaders too steep a price?  Is Congress rightly upset by a president who may have defied the law in releasing Guantanamo detainees?

Most troubling are emerging questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture. Was he a true victim of war or a deserter whose actions jeopardized fellow soldiers called upon to search for him?

Afghan elections redefine U.S. role

On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president, marking a critical turning point in Afghanistan’s history and our role in the country.

This election comes at an important time in U.S.-Afghan relations, which have been hindered by the erratic and often insulting behavior of President Hamid Karzai. The outcome will present an opportunity for the United States to redefine our relationship with Afghanistan in a way that addresses our shared security concerns and the long-term stability and viability of the country.

Make no mistake, the democratic transition to a new president would not be possible without the last 12 years of sacrifices made by the United States. The Afghan people and Americans owe a profound debt of gratitude to our armed forces, diplomats and U.S. Agency for International Development workers who helped transform Afghanistan from a failed state to fledgling democracy.

Afghanistan votes on its future

The coverage on the impending Afghan presidential elections has been filled with death and chaos — the tragic shooting at the Serena hotel where an international election monitor was killed, the shocking attack on the Afghan Election Commission’s headquarters, the killing of a provincial council candidate and the news that several international monitoring groups are pulling out.

These tragedies, however, shift the focus from the major news in Afghanistan this week: Election fever has gripped the nation. I hear from Afghans as well as many foreigners now working in Afghanistan that the excitement about the coming April 5 presidential election is palpable and encouraging.

If this election goes relatively smoothly, it will mark the first democratic handover of power in Afghan history. Potential large-scale fraud and violence will be substantial obstacles to overcome, but there are also some positive signs. Voters, observers and security personnel are gearing up with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Risky business: Talking to the Taliban

If one event crystallizes Pakistan’s helplessness in confronting its political future, it is the recent assassination-by-American-drone of Hakimullah Mehsud, erstwhile leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamabad had only just acknowledged its plan to hold “peace talks” when Mehsud was killed. Mehsud — with a $5 million bounty on his head, and thousands of civilian deaths to his movement’s credit — was immediately eulogized as the key to peace in Pakistan.

Or so it had seemed to the wishful among Pakistan’s politicians. But the country’s labyrinthine military and political makeup and its often opposing foreign and domestic interests make it difficult to imagine how any Pakistani government can negotiate a deal that brings peace to a time of many terrors. If it is unclear what it means for Pakistan to negotiate its political compact with the Taliban, it is also unclear what it would take to make any deal stick.

Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us

Adding to an unenviable list of challenges that already includes earthquakes, sectarian violence and an economy teetering near collapse, Pakistan’s leaders are attempting to open a new round of high-stakes peace negotiations with homegrown insurgents, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The United States cannot do much to help these talks succeed, but President Barack Obama should use his October 23 summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ensure that if Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail, they fail in ways that unite mainstream Pakistanis in the fight against violent extremism rather than creating new rifts between Washington and Islamabad.

Unlike the Afghan Taliban groups that have had a live-and-let-live arrangement with Pakistani authorities, directing their violence beyond Pakistan’s borders, the TTP has conducted attacks with devastating effect on the Pakistani military and government, as well as innocent civilians. Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, describes the group as the state’s top security threat. And because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed, fast-growing state of nearly 200 million citizens that borders India, China, Iran and the Arabian Sea, the TTP’s disruptive potential also threatens U.S. security.

A fragile peace with Taliban if school attacks escalate

In the week in which America opened the door for negotiations with the Taliban, three bloody massacres of school children — shot down simply because they wanted to go to school — raise grave questions about what kind of peace the Taliban offer.

Within days of the initiative for talks, the Taliban shot to death nine foreign tourists encamped on the peak of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan, saying the murders were in retaliation for a drone attack that killed one of their leaders. But what kind of justification can possibly be offered for the firebombing of a college bus carrying forty girls from their Quetta campus in Pakistan? Fourteen defenseless girls died in the bombing; eight more people died when the terrorists ambushed the hospital.

We are confronted by a savage war waged by Islamic extremists against young people seeking education. In the wake of the outrage in Pakistan, two appalling massacres that killed 16 students were perpetrated in Nigeria by the country’s leading terrorist group, Boko Haram, whose name literally means, “Western education is sin.” It all underscores what is crucially missing from the seemingly good news that the Taliban, ensconced in its nice new headquarters in Doha, Qatar, has made two pledges for peace. One: to end the war peacefully, and a second to stop using Afghanistan as a base for terror strikes against other countries, as it did in 9/11.

Help Pakistan rein in the ISI

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

Admiral Mike Mullen’s blunt declaration on Thursday that a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network acts as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is a welcome shift in U.S. policy. After a decade of privately cajoling the Pakistani military to stop its disastrous policy of sheltering the Afghan Taliban, the United States is publicly airing the truth.

Pakistan’s top military spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supported the Haqqanis as they carried out an attack on the American embassy last week, Mullen said during Congressional testimony. Last year, they arrested a Taliban leader who engaged in peace talks without their permission, according to American officials. And many Afghans suspect ISI involvement in the assassination this week of the head of Afghan peace talks that did not involve Pakistan.

The airing of the ISI’s links to the Haqqanis is long overdue. To me, the ISI is a cancer on Pakistan. It is vital, though, that American officials punish the Pakistani military–not all Pakistanis–for the ISI’s actions.

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