Tales from the Trail

from Afghan Journal:

Engaging the Afghan Taliban: a short history

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

For those pushing for high-level political negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to bring to an end to the eight-year war,  two U.S. scholars  in separate pieces are suggesting a walk through recent history  The United States has gone down the path of dialogue with the group before and suffered for it, believing against its own better judgement in the Taliban's promises until it ended up with the September 11, 2001 attacks, says  Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute in this article in Commentary.

Rubin, who is completing a history of U.S. engagement with rogue regimes, says unclassified U.S. State Department documents show that America opened talks with the Taliban soon after the group  emerged as a powerful force in Kandahar in 1994 and well over a year before they took over Kabul. From then on it was a story of   diplomats doing everything possible to remain engaged with the Taliban in the hope it would modify their  behaviour, and that they would be persuaded to expel Osama bin Laden who had  by then relocated from Sudan.  The Taliban, on the other hand, in their meetings with U.S. diplomats, would stonewall on terrorism  but would also dangle just enough hope to keep the officials calling and forestall punitive strategies.

Over a five year period of engagement, the United States gained little while the Taliban grew even more radicalised and the threat from al Qaeda more serious. Rubin details how State Department officials were repeatedly misled by Taliban officials harbouring bin Laden even after two U.S. embassies were attacked in Africa in  1998.  They even told them they would protect the Buddha statues in Bamiyan which were subsequently destroyed.

"The Taliban had like many rogue regimes, acted in bad faith.  They had engaged not to compromise, but to buy time. They had made many promises, but did not keep a single one. The Taliban refused to isolate, let alone, expel Bin Laden , and al Qaeda metastasized," says Rubin. The Sept 11 attacks were plotted at a time when U.S. engagement with the Taliban was in full swing. 

Some of the logic and even the language used at the time is eerily similar to the current push for a political settlement with senior Taliban figures.  There was a difference between al Qaeda and the Taliban and it was possible that the latter could be peeled away,  U.S. officials and political commentators said at the time.  Second, Pakistan with its close ties to the Taliban was a key player offering advice to Washington, as it seeks to at the present time.

Is Holbrooke’s “bulldozer” style working?

Dubbed the “bulldozer” for his tough guy tactics in Balkan negotiations, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been making waves in South Asia recently.

holbrookeU.S. embassies in New Delhi and Kabul have been scrambling over the past week to deal with local fallout from statements made by Washington’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Statements that often go by unnoticed in Washington are parsed word for word in a region where there are deeply-held suspicions over U.S. intentions.

Beyond the talk show fireworks, Cheney supported some Obama decisions

Former Vice President Dick Cheney swapped barbs with Vice President Joe Biden on the morning talk shows Sunday.

Beyond the fireworks, however, there were interesting things they didn’t argue about.

Cheney endorsed President Barack Obama’s approach in Afghanistan.

He backed an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that limits the ability of homosexuals to serve in the military.

How Obama’s Nobel speech played in Washington

NOBEL-OBAMA/For a man who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama didn’t look all that happy as he strode to the lectern in Oslo. He had that downturned smile that was almost an acknowledgement of all the critics who say the award is premature — especially for a commander-in-chief who has just vowed to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan.

The speech itself didn’t make much of a splash on morning television in Washington. None of the major TV networks carried it live, though CNN did, cutting away from Obama from time to time to show an audience listening attentively, with a few eyelids drooping. But viewers didn’t have many options if they wanted to see the speech as it happened. They could see a blink of Obama sandwiched in between the televised feature stories — Dillie the Deer, a taped interview with first lady Michelle Obama, a duel interview with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman to promote their new movie.

The Washington Post ran a live feed on its Web site; after the speech ended, there was a story and a photo slide show. The New York Times posted a text of the address. The Drudge Report – a one-stop online gateway for some in Washington — ran two small headlines about the Nobel ceremony (“Obama defends US wars as he accepts peace prize…” and  ”Norwegians Incensed Over Obama Snubs…”) over the main story. Just after the speech it was “SNOW DRIFTS TO 15FT!” but later it changed to “DEMS TO LIFT DEBT CEILING BY $1.8 TRILLION!”

What rift? Eikenberry, McChrystal take vows of unity

They smiled at each other and publicly said “I do.”

USAGeneral Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, widely reported to have had a falling-out over sending  30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, on Tuesday pledged their support for President Barack Obama’s strategy and for each other.

The congressional hearing was on the Afghan war, but it had moments that almost seemed borrowed from a wedding ceremony.

“Do you support the president’s plan (for Afghanistan) in each of its elements?” asked Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin.

What trumps a car bomb, a blizzard and a trip to Kabul?

GOLF-PGA/If you watched U.S. morning television or went online early today, you already know the answer to this media riddle. Top stories — a deadly car-bombing in Baghdad, a massive winter storm rolling across the United States and an unannounced flight to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Robert Gates – took a back seat to a new development in the tabloid tale of Tiger Woods.

The latest turn in the super-golfer’s travails occurred overnight, when a Florida television station reported an unidentified woman was taken by ambulance from Woods’ home to a nearby hospital.

WESH-TV showed footage of a blond woman on a stretcher.

UPDATE: The woman wheeled out of  Woods’ home was identified as his mother-in-law, who was suffering from stomach pains.

Public forecast for Afghan strategy – stalemate

Americans have doubts over whether President Barack Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy will ultimately result in victory, but a majority say the war is morally justified.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll finds that 57 percent said the most likely outcome for the United States in Afghanistan would be a stalemate, with 29 percent predicting victory.

AFGHANISTAN-USA/When asked whether a victory was possible or not possible, 58 percent of those surveyed said it was possible, while 41 percent said it was not possible.

Rise and Fall, according to Murtha

Great powers rise and fall.

And a powerful member of the House of Representatives, mindful of this, fears the United States could be swamping itself in Afghanistan’s rugged terrain, a graveyard of foreign forces. USA/

“What I’m worried about is the cost of the war,” said Rep. John Murtha, who controls the Pentagon’s purse strings as chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee.

President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, was “real good” in presenting his new war strategy Tuesday night, “but he didn’t convince me,” Murtha told a briefing on Wednesday. He spoke after a two-day visit to Afghanistan last week.

The First Draft: Afghanistan inspires Freudian slips about that other battlefield – Iraq

President Barack Obama may have invoked Vietnam to banish that ugly specter of defeat from his shiny new Afghan strategy. But a day later, Iraq seems to be the wartime nightmare dogging two congressional veterans of the Bush wars.

Vice President Joe Biden, who was a Democratic senator from Delaware during Rummy’s “Shock and Awe” bombardment of Baghdad, let the musings of his unconscious psyche slip out Freudian style in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America.

While refuting worries among critics that the Afghan strategy’s 18-month timeline might embolden the Taliban, Biden said: “How are they emboldened knowing that by the time we train up the Afghanis, we’re going to be gradually handing off beginning in 2003?”

Senator Leahy takes Obama to task over landmines

With President Barack Obama poised to order more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, a senior U.S. senator hammered the administration Tuesday for not joining an international treaty banning landmines.

“I think the Obama administration has made a dramatic mistake in this area,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said in remarks on the Senate floor. “This is not what we expected from this administration.”
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The Vermont senator, a longtime supporter of the 10-year-old international Mine Ban Treaty, said one argument the Pentagon made for opposing the accord was that it wanted to preserve its option to use landmines in Afghanistan.

“Yet we have seen how civilian casualties in Afghanistan have become one of the most urgent and pressing concerns of our military commanders, where bombs that missed their targets and other mistakes have turned the populace against us,” he said.