Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Tactical, not terminal

The predominant media narrative was pretty straightforward:  U.S. soldier kills 16 Afghan civilians, the Taliban respond by suspending participation in U.S.-sponsored Afghan peace talks. Game over.

Or maybe not. As Missy Ryan reports today, efforts by the Obama administration to cajole the Taliban into peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while not exactly roaring forward, are not dead. U.S. officials see the Taliban move as tactical, not terminal, and more of a reflection of internal divisions within the movement than anything else. “Deep breaths, and not hyperventilation, are required here,” said one of the many U.S. officials Reuters interviewed.

The Taliban also appear put out that President Obama has not yet transferred senior Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to kick-start the talks. That’s a problem for Obama, who faces intense resistance to sending the Talibs to detention in Qatar. That Qatar has yet to agree to U.S. demands they be held under strict conditions further complicates matters.

Still, the massacre of the Afghan innocents may not have been the game-changer it was assumed to be. Karzai immediately demanded U.S. troops leave Afghan villages, but has not followed through. Further proof that things in Afghanistan are rarely what they seem, and that it pays to watch what the players do, not what they say.

Warren Strobel

Editor in Charge, U.S. Foreign Policy & National Security

Here are our top stories from Washington…

US see Taliban talks suspension as tactical move

The Taliban’s suspension of preliminary peace talks is a tactical move reflecting internal tensions, U.S. officials believe, rather than a definitive halt to discussions the White House hopes will bring a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan. U.S. officials had been bracing themselves for backlash from the militant group following a string of public setbacks that have scandalized and angered Afghans, notably U.S. soldiers’ burning of copies of the Koran and the killing of 16 Afghan villagers for which a U.S. soldier is in custody.

Washington Extra – Talking with the Taliban

For most Americans and for many here in Washington, the idea that the United States could broker successful talks with the Taliban that lead to the end of the Afghan war is mind-bending. And yet, that is what senior U.S. officials have allowed themselves to entertain as 10 months of secret dialogue reach the point of breakthrough or collapse. It’s a small glimmer of hope where there once was none.

In our exclusive “Secret U.S., Taliban talks reach turning point,” we reveal that the United States is considering the transfer of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo to the Afghan government. The Taliban will have to correspond with its own confidence-building measures like denouncing international terrorism and entering formal talks with President Karzai’s government.

Judging from initial reactions, a reconciliation process will be no easy sell here at home (not to mention in Afghanistan, where a senior Taliban commander said talks had not even started).

Petraeus says budget delays not affecting Afghan war… yet

The commander of international forces in Afghanistan is keeping a wary eye on budget battles in Congress these days.

General David Petraeus says failure to pass a budget this year has noUSA/t yet complicated the war effort against al Qaeda.

But there’s a point at which it will begin to have an impact, he told an event  sponsored by the National Journal on Friday at the Newseum.

A ‘critical moment’ in Afghanistan

U.S. General David Petraeus made no mention of July 2011 as he formally took command of international troops in Afghanistan fighting a growing Taliban insurgency.petraeus1

“We are in this to win,” Petreaus said at the change-of-command ceremony on Sunday in Kabul.  Petreaus is also charged with starting a drawdown of U.S. forces a year from now — President Barack Obama’s stated goal.

That date does not sit well with Republican lawmakers, who adamantly oppose any timetable for withdrawal.

Obama’s approval rating dips in CBS poll

President Barack Obama, about to mark his one-year anniversary at the White House, has seen his job approval rating drop to 46 percent in a new CBS News poll, the lowest recorded in this particular poll. USA/

CBS said it is domestic issues that are hurting the president. His approval rating on handling the U.S. economy is at 41 percent and his handling of healthcare is at 36 percent. These are all time lows.

The poll comes as Obama seeks to gain congressional passage of a healthcare overhaul in the early weeks of this year.

Afghan hearings takeaway: Charlie Wilson, swimming pools

They weren’t the most “important” words said today at congressional hearings on President Barack Obama’s new Afghanistan war strategy, but the following snippets were memorable.

AFGHANISTANAfghanistan and swimming pools:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “We’re not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool … and walk away.”

Senator Joe Lieberman responded: “I appreciate what you said. We’re not just going to throw the Afghans into the pool and — and — and run away until we’re sure that they can swim on their own.”

Obama uses V-word in Afghan speech, and we don’t mean victory

President Barack Obama uttered it four times in his speech at West Point about the way forward in Afghanistan.

It was the V-word that is often linked with the Q-word that conjures up the ghost of a past war that still is a raw wound in the American psyche.

USA/Obama charged head-on to try and address one of the key fears for Americans about continued involvement in an overseas war by saying that Vietnam, often described as a quagmire, was not Afghanistan.

The First Draft: Return from Dover

President Barack Obama returned in the early hours from a trip to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where he saluted the flag-draped caskets of 18 soldiers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in Afghanistan this week. OBAMA/

Journalists were allowed to see the transfer of the last casket. Reuters correspondent Ross Colvin was there and reports that it was cold and blustery as Obama stood at attention and saluted as six soldiers carried the casket, bearing the body of Sergeant Dale Griffin of Indiana, off the plane and onto a waiting van.

With at least 53 killed, October has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and public opinion polls show increasing weariness of the war.

Plan B for Afghanistan: cut and run?

In Monday’s blog, I looked at McChrystal’s recommendation for a significantly stepped up effort to stabilize Afghanistan, and a major shift in strategy to win over the Afghan people.

But many people, including influential actors within the administration and several readers who left comments on Monday, are advocating a different approach: pull out, and leave Afghans to their own devices. This blog looks at Plan B.

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“The Russians were in Afghanistan for 10 years. The Americans have been here for seven, and we will send them home in just three more years”.

McChrystal report hits Obama with tough choices in Afghanistan

The general picked by Barack Obama to finish up the war in Afghanistan has presented the U.S. president with some hard choices.

The toughest one: Send more troops to implement a radically different strategy within the next year or risk losing the conflict.

USA“The campaign in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced and remains so today,” General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said in a 66-page report to the defense secretary.