Divide and Conquer Negotiations with the Taliban

14 02 2012

Foreign Policy
14 February 2012

[My latest commentary for Foreign Policy, available here]


With the Taliban close to opening a political office in Qatar for the purpose of negotiating an end to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising that the Taliban’s primary rival insurgent network, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), is now clamoring for a seat at the table as well.  Yet the Taliban and HIG are quite different from each other, both in how they think and how they operate, and HIG would play a complicated but very useful role at the negotiating table with NATO and Kabul if the process gathers momentum.While HIG’s forces are fewer than they were in the 1980s when its leader and founder, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was America’s favorite anti-Soviet mujahed, HIG has attacked NATO forces for years with a robust insurgent and criminal syndicate throughout northern and eastern Afghanistan, where I served as a civilian advisor to NATO forces in Laghman and Nuristan in 2011. Among other attacks, HIG organized an enormous 2009 siege on an American base in Kamdesh, Nuristan in which 8 U.S. soldiers were killed, and they participated in a massacre of 10 international aid workers in Badakhshan Province in 2010.

In the last few months, Dr. Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law and long-time representative of Hekmatyar, has met with ISAF Commander General John Allen, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss prospects for HIG’s reconciliation and a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet with NATO’s eyes focused mainly on the southern heartland, it may be tempting for the alliance to focus on negotiating solely with the Taliban, disregarding HIG. Ultimately, however, tandem negotiations with both insurgent groups are vital for several reasons.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Art of Appeasement

30 07 2009

Asia Times
30 July 2009

[My two-part commentary published in today’s Asia Times.]

In the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson, JFK’s notoriously dovish UN Ambassador, suggested that the US offer Moscow a non-confrontational trade to stave off a nuclear exchange: we withdraw our missiles from Turkey, and the Soviets withdraw their missile components from Cuba.  Upon hearing his advice, President Kennedy and every member of his secretive ExComm group (assembled to troubleshoot the crisis) scolded Stevenson for recklessly forgetting the obvious lessons of Munich, when Britain and France appeased Hitler prior to the Second World War.  Only a fool, they said, would reward the aggression of tyrants like Hitler and Khrushchev with diplomacy.  But then, lo and behold, under cover of absolute secrecy, President Kennedy went ahead and made nearly the exact same ‘appeasing’ trade that Stevenson recommended.[1]

It would seem, then, that if Kennedy handled the situation well—and there is a virtual consensus that he did—then appeasement is appropriate so long as no one knows about it.  Ironically, the only party with whom we ever felt a need to be secretive was the USSR, and they were the only ones privy to the deal.  The subterfuge, then, was apparently for the sole benefit of the American people, who would have likely seen this trade as a sign of capitulation and weakness, even if it came (as it eventually did) on the heels of a forceful blockade of Cuba.  Kennedy knew that Americans were just as likely as anyone to mistake the feeling of humiliation for the presence of weakness, and proceed to throw him under the bus.  But why?

With enemies ranging from empires to nation-states to terrorist organizations, the policy of appeasement has been scorned for the last 70 years to rouse the rabble out of its comfortable apathy and confront unadulterated evil. Unsurprisingly, however, our disdain in the West for any scent of appeasement has led to a widespread and knee-jerk tendency to identify and dismiss any policy of restraint or conservation, frequently at the expense of grounded foreign policy.  Not only, then, is appeasement wildly over-diagnosed, but even when accurately identified, the policy is quickly discarded as a tool of the weak.  And with the Obama Administration making numerous overtures of reengagement with Syria, Iran and other controversial parties, a close examination of both the legitimate and delusional perils of appeasement is long overdue.  Anti-appeasement rhetoric and survival instincts run amok have clouded our judgment, and it is time to right the ship. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama, Bush find common ground on foreign policy

18 12 2008

Common Ground News Service
16 December 2008

[Syndicated by the Middle East Times, Beirut’s Daily Star, Egypt’s Daily News and Al Arabiya]
[Read this column in Arabic
, Urdu, French and Indonesian]

Negotiating with our adversaries is a tricky business, and with President-elect Barack Obama on the way in, most observers of US foreign policy are confident that negotiating is about to become the predominant foreign policy approach — for better or worse. They are mistaken, however, if they think this approach will be a drastic change.

In fact, in the last two years, though it is sometimes difficult to discern from White House press releases, President George W. Bush has actually been relying more and more on the very tactics that most observers have come to associate with Obama. In fact, in terms of broad foreign policy strategy, when it comes to opening the channels of negotiation and dialogue, four more years of Bush could have been alarmingly similar to those of Obama’s upcoming ones.

Consider, for instance, that after six years of refusing to negotiate with “rogue” governments or liberally labelled “terrorist groups”, the Bush administration has, since 2006, negotiated a long-lasting alliance with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, many of whom are held responsible for killing thousands of American soldiers between the summer of 2003 and the fall of 2006. In addition, Washington led successful multilateral negotiations with North Korea to ensure a verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which produced and successfully tested a nuclear device in 2006.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Bush administration has negotiated with Iran in order to reduce Tehran’s military and financial support of the Shi’a militias in central Iraq, and Washington has expressed increasing openness to negotiating with the non-Al Qaeda elements of the Taliban.

To claim, however, that Bush has been rectifying his disastrous policies is hardly absolution. Without a doubt, Bush has spent the last half of his second term unravelling the fabric of much of his foreign policy because his previous methods were failing at every turn.

Yet, change he has.

After all, the Bush administration is well into negotiations — on one level or another — with numerous declared “enemies” of the United States, with particular emphasis on the “axis of evil”.

Obama’s policy of pro-engagement might feel visionary and new, but only because Bush has been so quiet in his engagement with these parties, unlikely to celebrate a policy that was dead last on his initial list of priorities.

In order to provide a clean roadmap for his own foreign policy, Obama essentially ignored the seemingly pro-engagement tactics in the final two years of the Bush presidency on the campaign trail. However, it is no coincidence that Obama decided to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon. For much of the last two years, Gates and Obama seemed to be virtually quoting each other’s policy speeches, especially regarding the importance of renewing US focus on Afghanistan/Pakistan in the so-called “war on terror”.

While most of us were distracted with how the presidential candidates framed their campaign objectives, Bush was busy creating the momentum for a series of negotiations that he never had the talent or political capital to finish.

If Obama, in contrast, possesses the talent and the capital to engage our adversaries effectively and with follow-through, then his best chance resides in his ability to complement, not replace, his predecessor’s recent diplomatic efforts abroad.

Reaching an appropriate balance of introducing new policy approaches and building on those of the past administration is what Obama’s transition team is supposed to ensure, but Obama’s supporters are expecting the appearance of clean breaks and fresh policies come 20 January, if only because Bush’s belated progress was inspired and stained by a failed presidency.

Obama has the benefit (and foresight) of knowing on Day 1 what his predecessor learned in Year 6, which might mean fewer political and military mistakes, especially the hubristic kind. If they do not succeed, however, he too will have to know when to change course.

There is frequently a healthy dose of wisdom that accumulates after years of defeat, and learning lessons the hard way doesn’t mean the lessons are any less valuable; it simply means they came at an exorbitant cost. Obama stands to reap the benefits of Bush’s about-face. To fully benefit from this lesson, however, Obama must acknowledge that while he was campaigning for change, change was already under way.

[View this commentary at the Common Ground News Service]

SOFA and the Likely Bombing of Iran

5 12 2008

Al Jazeera Magazine
5 December 2008

There are certain fundamentals to an international negotiation that simply cannot be massaged or altered, even with the political momentum fostered by America’s incoming president, Barack Obama.

In the last five years, Tehran and Washington have jockeyed for influence in Iraq and occasionally negotiated with each other to shape the country’s democratic Shia majority to their own advantage.

And while Tehran’s nuclear weapons program has inspired greater international concern, Washington has kept any talk of nukes on the sidelines for years, hoping that the US could tackle that problem once Iraq stabilized—much as it has in recent months.

But two immediate obstacles threaten American stakes in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  The first is President-elect Obama’s repeated pledge to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the summer of 2010, and the second is the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was approved by Iraq’s cabinet and parliament last week after months of acrimony in Baghdad.  The SOFA timetable requires all US combat forces to be out by the end of 2011, and for Iraqi authorities to control all military bases, cities and decision-making apparatuses by this time next year.

Yet however it happens, a unilateral US withdrawal from Iraq will leave Washington with virtually nothing of substance to offer Iran in return for the verifiable termination of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Read the rest of this entry »

Negotiating America’s War on Terror

15 02 2008

Asia Times
Negotiating Honesty in America’s War on Terror
15 February 2008

[The following is a cultural exploration of the real reasons we Westerners despise terrorism; how our morality and history of victory shaped our perceptions; and how these perceptions have restricted our foreign policy and commandeered our expectations when it comes to the identity and ideology of the people at the other end of the negotiating table.]

There is a robust dialogue in the west concerning just causes for declaring war (such as preemption, self-defense, etc.), but very little discussion about the methods of warfare that we (and other westernized countries) have come to regard as either justifiable or unconscionable.  Americans, in particular, have developed a keen sense of what constitutes fair and unfair behavior in conflict and war, but much like members of any culture, westerners seldom question (or even ponder) their unequivocal abhorrence for certain behavior, such as terrorism and hostage-taking.  It is important to recognize the difference between why we emotionally hate terrorism, and why we are politically adverse to it.  The justifications are intertwined, just as they are in the rest of our moral-centric policies; but their differences should be addressed.

Ultimately, if we do not understand why we despise terrorism so much, then we cannot define terrorism.  If we cannot define terrorism, we cannot define victory.  If we cannot define victory, we cannot achieve it.  And finally, if we cannot achieve victory in an ideological war, then what good are our cultural values, anyway? Admittedly, this last question is rather circular, but this is precisely the point, as the following should indicate.  Americans have great difficulty framing foreign policy (and most objectives, generally) outside the scope of values and morals.  In the case of terrorism, it is with a rather bizarre twist of rhetoric that we have endorsed a war whose bounds are frighteningly limitless in every possible way. Read the rest of this entry »

Serbia’s International Balancing Act

28 01 2008

Voice of America
28 January 2008

Video of my VOA interview, aired in Serbia.

Decision Time on Iran

8 03 2007

Middle East Times
8 March 2007

After refusing to endorse the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations in December to negotiate with Iran and Syria about the fate of Iraq, Secretary Rice’s recent policy reversal was as startling as it was predictable. Only weeks ago, it had been staunch US policy not to submit to Iranian “extortion,” but, like it or not, there is simply no other way now to secure Iraq. If only it were that simple.

This is the moment Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been waiting for: US foreign policy will soon reflect the fact that the war in Iraq cannot be won with force, and that we will have to make concessions of some kind to salvage this failed mission. But at whose expense?

In the buildup to the US invasion of Iraq, the Israeli government quietly gave its blessing to the Bush administration, hoping, in return, that the US would extend the same courtesy to Israel when the time came to address the blossoming Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Naturally, any such implicit exchange depended entirely on the successful reconstruction of Iraq – by even the flimsiest definition of success. As many on the right and left predicted, the failure to replace the toppled Saddam Hussein with a leadership able to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions has hurt Israel far more than forgoing the invasion would have done. Read the rest of this entry »

Syria’s Ripeness Factor

29 11 2006

Yediot Ahronoth (Israel)
29 November 2006

Israel’s conflict in the north with Hizbullah, Syria and (by extension) Iran is becoming increasingly ripe for a long-term resolution or containment, for the following reasons.

Why would Israel want to talk to any of its northern neighbors?

Hizbullah’s summer attack and continued ransom of two Israeli soldiers has led many Israelis to realize that the status quo is no longer automatically preferable to a settlement. And Israel’s inability to humiliate Hizbullah – as nothing less could be considered a victory – only reinforces the need to do something different.

How can Israel neutralize the northern threat?

Shiite and Hizbullah ministers in Lebanon are actively trying to force a collapse of the current anti-Syrian government by resigning in bulk, and possibly by killing popular anti-Syrian ministers. It is unclear if Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can weather this storm, but regardless, his government could never survive a political or military confrontation with Hizbullah.

Syria, on the other hand, is in the powerful position of being the only country (other than Israel) that shares a border with Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the wherewithal and lack of ideological constraints necessary to physically isolate Hizbullah in Lebanon. He merely lacks the motivation.

What would motivate Syria to cut off Hizbullah?

At its core, Syria is opportunistic. While Hizbullah is the ideological offspring of Iran, Syria merely serves as a channel between Iran and Hizbullah in the interest of money and power, not ideology and certainly not religion.

To ensure the operational capabilities of Hizbullah, Iran needs unimpeded access and supply lines through Syria and into southern Lebanon, which President Assad offers in order to get a free ride on Iran’s shoulders, as the popularity of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only increases. And as always, Syria longs for a return of the Golan Heights, and the vast majority of Syrians are prepared to make sacrifices to get it back.

Neither the Israelis or Syrians are willing to put their big chips on the table (land and peace, respectively) until they have reason to believe they will not regret trusting each other. To this end, Assad’s diverse insecurities would give Israel the pretext to negotiate without immediately discussing the Golan Heights.

For instance, Damascus is facing a severe water shortage and needs billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure to transport water to Damascus, either from the Mediterranean Sea or the Euphrates River.

What’s more, Assad needs money (and a surge in international commerce) to strengthen his hold on power. Widespread resentment of his Alawite regime for its perceived corruption and ineptitude comes easily to a population that is nearly 75 percent Sunni and on the border with war-torn Iraq.

For various reasons, Arab nations have withdrawn their financial and political support for Syria, forcing Assad to become increasingly dependent on Iran—militarily, politically, and financially. This trend is not irreversible, but Assad has to embrace these trends or face a coup.

Or, the United States could step in.

Why would the United States engage Syria?

Constrained by a number of factors, President Bush could only engage Syria if it would benefit the US position in Iraq or limit the reach of Iran. Syria’s porous eastern border with Iraq is likely the easiest – and most used – method for Sunni fighters to enter Iraq and join the insurgency. The border is too long for the US forces to monitor, but Assad has the power to guard it, were he so inclined.

Furthermore, leading Syria away from Iran’s periphery would strike a blow to Tehran’s overall strides toward regional dominance. In fact, such a policy would be celebrated (and potentially rewarded) by the nervous Sunnis in Saudi Arabia.

By comparison, luring Syria should seem no more difficult than President Bush’s successful engagement with Libya and its leader, Moammar Qaddafi, who for decades was isolated for sponsoring terrorism.

Why would Israel negotiate with Syria?

Without a substantive mandate to disarm Hizbullah, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon will only delay an inevitable reprise, spurned by whatever new and deadly weapons Hizbullah acquires in the meantime.

No country would be more threatened by a nuclear Iran than Israel, especially if Syria continues to act as a liaison between Iran and Hizbullah. But if handicapped by Syria, Iran could only pose a strategic nuclear threat to Israel with conventional nuclear missiles. Though far from ideal – especially in Israel – limiting Hizbullah’s technological reach is preferable to nothing at all.

Short of a nightmarish US invasion of Iran, the best Israel can hope for is to neutralize and starve Hizbullah’s supply lines and ideology out of existence. The same could be said for Hamas’ operation in Damascus – a chip that Assad would gladly hand over if it meant internal stability.

Besides, even skeptics of engagement recognize that Israel has a substantial strategic interest in preventing the overthrow of Syria’s ruling family, as their replacement or (more likely) his usurper would almost certainly do far worse than arming Hizbullah.

Admittedly, the scenario painted by this analysis is exceedingly rosy. It glosses over the nearly unthinkable Israeli decision to give up the Golan and asks for dramatic changes in policy from both Syria and the United States.

But Syria is vulnerable. Assad is allying with Iran’s fiery leader out of necessity, and he knows that Tehran will discard him as soon as he outlives his usefulness. That moment is approaching, and direct engagement with Syria is necessary to ensure Israel’s long-term security and to protect American interests in the Middle East.

[View this Op-Ed at Ynet]

Don’t Forget Abkhazia

17 03 2006

Georgian Messenger
17 March 2006

While Georgia and Russia focus their efforts on addressing the potential for renewed conflict in South Ossetia, a series of provocative events and statements coming from Abkhazia should not be overlooked.  In fact, a number of mixed messages from Abkhazia are ripening the region’s political environment for advances toward peace.  Unfortunately, Tbilisi might be too preoccupied or temperamental to take notice.

For more than a decade, Abkhazia has been siphoning resources and support from Russia for no other reason than because Russia continues to offer them.  Ethnic Abkhazians have no more allegiance to Russia than they do to Georgia; after all, Abkhazia was also subject to the iron fist of Soviet rule.  Yet after breaking off from the rest of Georgia, Abkhazia desperately needed a pillar to rest on, and Russia provided that—again, not out of loyalty to Abkhazians, but merely to maintain its influence in the rapidly westernizing south Caucasus and Black Sea region. Read the rest of this entry »

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