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Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer

Speaker: James J. Shinn, Lecturer, Princeton University; Co-author, Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer
Author: James Dobbins, Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND; Co-author, Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer
Presider: Frank G. Wisner, Foreign Affairs Adviser, Patton Boggs, LLP
September 6, 2011, New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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FRANK WISNER:  Ladies and gentlemen, I hope everyone has had a chance to have lunch.  It's 1:00 and we have the privilege today of being able to meet with, listen to, Jim Dobbins and Jim Shinn as they discuss a subject of enormous importance and moment, the Afghan peace talks.

I am -- my name is Frank Wisner.  I will try to ask a few questions to get the two Jims talking, but I'm going to rely on all of you to ask the questions I'm sure are on all of your minds as you think about this hugely important subject.

I would ask, for all of our sakes, that anyone who hasn't thought to turn off his -- his or her cellphone, please do so now, and turn it off, I'm told, including vibrators and other things lest the sound system be disrupted.  The meeting today is on the record, and therefore I hope all questions will be put on the table.

I welcome both Jim Shinn, Jim Dobbins personally, two men whom I admire.  The reasons I admire them are both contained in the paper before you -- the book before you -- as well as their biographies, which I assume are in front of all of you, and I won't go to the unnecessary task of repeating it.

I'd like to, Jim and Jim, to thank both of you for a terrific piece of analysis on an important subject -- very good timing, good policy, and as far as I'm concerned, well done.  I think you've done us all a great service.  You've reminded us why, 10 years ago, we went to war in Afghanistan.  You reminded us that we went to break al-Qaida's capability of exporting terror on its own, or to do so in alliance with the Taliban.

You have happily, from my point of view, restated and reset the definition of what should be our objective: to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a source, a haven or an ally of terror again in the future.  That, to my way of thinking, is a definition of an objective that has some hope of being accomplished.

I would like to think, though, I can persuade you to add to it that Afghanistan, through the process of negotiation, can also play less of a role as a source for tension in the region and less of a battleground for the competing interests of those that surround it.  That too strikes me as a sensible objective.  You make it quite clear that constitutional and social issues must primarily be a matter for Afghans to treat.  That, I'm sure, will raise questions today as we proceed.

You didn't promise us a bed of roses in this report, but you have clarified the complex road to negotiations, defining actors' objectives and how, when, where to negotiate, and even the terms of an accord, and I thank you for that.

I think it's a terrific contribution to all of our thinking, and before I ply you with a question or two, let me turn the floor over first to, Jim Shinn, to you for some opening remarks, then Jim Dobbins, and then I'll ask the first question.

JAMES SHINN:  Well, Frank, thanks for that gracious introduction, and thanks to all of you for coming to discuss a fairly deadly serious topic through appropriately unpleasant weather today.

I'm also glad this was billed as a discussion rather than as a book lecture format, since there is so much expertise on Afghanistan and Pakistan around the table -- not clear to all of you reading the bio sheet just how much talent there is in the room, ranging from Professor Naderi on my left, who was one of the architects of the post-Bonn economic reconstruction planning for Afghanistan, and right on around the table:

Reuben Jeffery, with whom I've worked on Pakistan when he was at the State Department; then Carol, who apparently wrote one of the longest New York Times editorials on Afghanistan I've ever seen in this morning's New York Times; the folks from Century, whose project really was the genesis of our book, for which I thank Jeff Laurenti.

Colonel Buell (sp) over there, who taught me how to fire an AK-47 and said, always point at the ground, as he pointed out; and of course Jean-Marie Guehenno, who did a lot of work in Pakistan for the U.N.; and my co-author, Jim Dobbins, whose a man who never uses three when two will do, which is good exercise in trying to write a concise book on a very complicated topic.

Let me take one minute to tell you how the book got started.  Then I will turn the floor to Jim, who will, in typically concise fashion, summarize the core argument that we attempt to make.

And then I'll finish with one or two minutes about the big imponderables, the things that we just do not have much confidence in our ability to judge, and which will weigh heavily on the terms and the prospects of any Afghan peace accord.  That's also a good segue, I think, to Frank's questions and to open discussion.

This book actually started during a long and very uncomfortable ride in an armored SUV from Islamabad to Peshawar.  That's really the best way to travel that road.  And we had just spent three days in Islamabad, including about 20 meetings with Taliban, members of the insurgency, and other associated groups in the insurgency.

And we were trying to make sense of this during that long ride.  And one of the precipitating observations from those long conversations that grabbed my attention at that point, and which still holds my attention, was from a senior Pakistani who -- under the grounds of our discussions we have to remain anonymous, but he is not a member of the ISI -- said -- and he had three decades of very close relationships with the Taliban, so he spoke with, at least from our point of view, considerable credibility.

He said, you know, there is a convergence of interests between the Americans and the Taliban; it's just that neither side knows it -- which was a very interesting point.  So we believed there may be a convergence of interests but it's certainly not a sure thing.

Let me turn to Jim, if I may, for that argument in brief.

JAMES DOBBINS:  Well, when we started the research for this book -- which was largely organized by the Century Foundation and included a number of non-Americans as well as Americans, including John Baregeno (ph), Lakhdar Brahimi and others -- the idea of negotiating with the Taliban was highly controversial.

By the time we finished the book, the idea had been explicitly embraced, not just by Karzai but by the U.S. government, by NATO.  And, in fact, the U.S. government had several rounds of exploratory negotiations with members of the Taliban.

So I think our book is less putting forward a radical new idea, and it's more putting forward a guidepost to people who are going to try to follow this over the next several years as it wends its way forward, ideally to a conclusion.

Now, as Frank said, we start by positing the reason for our presence in Afghanistan.  And we argue that Afghanistan is distinguished from other areas where al-Qaida enjoys something of a sanctuary by the fact that it was the only place in the world in which al-Qaida was formally allied with the government in power.

So it wasn't just that it was operating clandestinely in a more or less permissive environment with an incompetent or ambivalent government.  Bin Laden had moved to Kandahar so he could be close to Mullah Omar.  And our objective is to prevent Afghanistan not just from being a sanctuary like Yemen or Pakistan or others, but, again, from becoming an ally of a global terrorist movement.

And you can accomplish this one of three ways:  You can destroy al-Qaida, you can destroy the Taliban, or you can break the link between the Taliban and al-Qaida.  We've tried to do the first two for the last 10 years, with some success, but we're not going to have complete success in either of those as long as both the Taliban and al-Qaida enjoy some degree of sanctuary in Pakistan.  And therefore, we're now beginning to do the third of those.  That is to break the link between the Taliban and al-Qaida through a process of negotiations.  So that's what it's about.

Now, we analyzed the problems of Afghanistan as somewhat distinguished from some of the other failed and failing states we've had to deal with.  Unlike, let's say, the former Yugoslavia or Iraq, both of which were strong states that were pulled apart by even stronger antipathies among their constituent nationalities and sectarian groups, Afghanistan is, by contrast, a weak state in which the antipathies among its constituent peoples are much weaker, but it's also much more subject to interference by neighbors.

And Afghanistan is a weak state pulled apart by its neighbors rather than a strong state divided by strong antipathies among its constituent elements.  This means that Afghanistan historically has been at peace when its neighbors want it to be at peace, and it's in conflict when one or more of its neighbors sees some advantage to it being in conflict.

Our judgment, therefore, is that negotiations between Karzai and elements of the insurgency, or even a broader negotiation among all factions in Afghanistan, including Karzai's legal opposition and the several elements of the current insurgency, would not be enough to stabilize the country for any significant period of time; that it's only if that process is supported by a broader process that involves the other countries who continue to play the great game that it's likely to have an enduring result.

Now, any number of countries have successfully overthrown regimes in Kabul.  That would include Russia, or the Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, Iran, India.  All of them have had success in this in the past.  And unless all of those states are included in some kind of broader process, not necessarily formally in the negotiating room as the sides negotiate, but close enough in proximity and more or less in agreement as to outcomes, we're not very optimistic that a process can succeed.

So we do posit a fairly complex process, a multitiered process in which the Afghans negotiate with the Afghans and the various surrounding powers work through their proxies, through those with whom they have influence, through their clients, to try pressure the Afghans toward convergence rather than divergence, which is the more normal product of these external pressures.  And we offer some guidelines as to how that process could be organized.

I would conclude by saying I think the administration has -- the Obama administration has basically bought off on this concept.  There is one exception.  We do recommend that they should seek the appointment of a neutral, prestigious international facilitator.

We argue that the United States, as the main protagonist in this war and in the negotiation, can't at the same be a mediator and a facilitator, that the roles are incompatible and that we need somebody we can trust but who's independent and has the trust of all their parties, in order to get everybody in the same room, in order to agree on who's participating, what the agenda is, where to negotiate those kinds of things, and then to lead the negotiations to some kind of conclusion.  I think the administration will eventually come to that judgment, but they haven't as yet.

Jim, do you want to conclude with a couple of main obstacles you see?

SHINN:  Yes.  I mean, there are two big obvious obstacles hanging over this luncheon discussion, and I'm sure everyone, including many in this room who think and write about strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan have to grapple with these same two problems that Jim and I did.  And the first one is, will the Taliban negotiate and honor a peace accord?  And, number two, will the Pakistanis let them?

With regard to the first point, at least based upon our very careful listening to what the Taliban -- the serving Taliban told us in Pakistan, those that we talked to via Skype back over into Afghanistan, as well as former Taliban, of whom you can go talk to any number of them in Kabul or Kandahar if you so desire, and they will talk to you.

The first is quite negative.  They do have a sense that time is on their side, and they remind us that the Americans appear to be exiting with a deadline of 2014.  There is little said officially in Washington on Afghanistan that does not get translated to Pashto and read by the insurgency.

The second factor that makes us less confident of the odds of an accord is the complicated decision-making process within the insurgency, broadly writ, itself.  It's not just the Quetta Shura, as we all know, but it includes the Haqqani network, the Hekmatyar network -- (inaudible) -- all of whom have studied different objectives -- sometimes very different objectives, different forces at their disposal, and different degrees of leverage vis-a-vis both the Karzai government and of course Pakistan.

They also have a very weakened vertical leadership structure, partly due to being decimated by U.S. and Afghan special forces, also by the attrition of the sustained -- now into a 10-year conflict, which makes one logically question whether, even if they negotiated an accord, that they would be able to enforce it down the chain of command.

And, finally, there is the question of Pakistan sanctuary.  As long as they are confident that they have the sanctuary and at least the tacit, if not the explicit, support of the Pakistan state, then they are reasonably confident that they can wait us out.

On the other hand, there was one positive note that came through our conversations -- and I'd turn to Jean-Marie or to Jeff or to Michael to amplify this if you wish -- which is that all of the Taliban that we spoke to seemed to be aware that there are really only three outcomes here.

The first is that the Karzai government destroys their insurgency, and they don't believe that's likely.  The second outcome is that they topple the Karzai government, in which case they precipitate civil war as the former Northern Alliance takes up arms rather than live through a second Islamic emirate.  Or there's negotiated peace.  So it's either war without end or a negotiated peace.

And as Frank and others know, who have tried to negotiate ends to messy conflicts, if all parties -- none of the parties like a peace, but if the alternative is war without end, then you have a chance -- you have a window to craft an accord.

Finally, about Pakistan, will the Pakistanis allow them to negotiate an accord, and would the Pakistanis themselves honor that?  That's an even murkier question, which I suppose we could discuss after this.

WISNER:  Well, both of you, thank you.

Perhaps to get the conversation started, my mind goes back, thanks to you, to this morning's New York Times editorial.  And there is a brief statement in it that -- of voicing skepticism about the prospect of negotiations.

Anyone who approaches this -- and the two of you have made it clear that this is a very complicated undertaking -- but I would like to ask the two of you to think for a second:  Given where we are today, given the constraints we operate under, how do you get a negotiation off the ground?

So far you've alluded in your report to contacts that have occurred.  How, actually, do you think you could get a negotiation started?

DOBBINS:  Well, we recommend that that task be left to, you know, an international facilitator or somebody with prestige, somebody trusted by the two sides.  Brahimi is one possibility.  Kofi Annan would be another possibility.  Mahtyat Atasari (ph) would be another possibility -- some of that -- to try to get agreement on where to meet, who comes to the meeting, what the agenda is.

It can be very broad.  It can be very general.  The Taliban would like someplace outside Pakistan where they can come where they won't be killed or arrested and where they can hold political discussions.  And they've made clear they want something like that.

So I think there's a basis there to identify a locale where political discussions can take place.  Once you have that locale, I think the non-Afghan parties will converge there on their own accord.  I mean, they'll simply show up in order to protect their interests.  And they can talk to each other, as they did in Bonn back in 2001.

None of the non-Afghans were formal participants in the Bonn conference in 2001, but all of us were there -- the Pakistanis, the Americans, the Russians, the Indians, the Iranians -- and we all talked to each other 24 hours a day as we oversaw this process and tried to steer it toward a positive outcome.  And so I see something like that is entirely feasible.

We do make clear that -- I don't think we assign a probability to it, but my guess is there's no more than a 50-percent probability that this process would actually succeed.  But we do argue that it's worth doing even if it doesn't succeed.

And it's worth doing if it doesn't succeed, for two reasons.  One, there's overwhelming support in the Afghan population for this, even in the non-Pashtun population.  The polling shows 80 percent or higher approval ratings for the concept of negotiating with the Taliban, bringing them into the governing process -- not allowing them to dominate it but allowing them to participate.

And, secondly, this is a much more uncomfortable process for the Taliban than it is for us, which is one of the reasons they haven't yet formally and overtly embraced it.  We are, after all -- to the extent we have an ideological position in Afghanistan, it's in support of representative government.

And nobody contests that the Taliban don't represent a significant portion of the people, about 10 percent, according to most polling.  And, therefore, the idea of including them in a government is not antithetical to the logic of our presence and the ideology that we've tried to present.

The Taliban, on the other hand, are fighting a jihad, a holy war, and it's hard to fight a holy war and negotiate with the devil at the same time.  And so I think the risks are higher for them than for us in getting into such a process.

WISNER:  Jim Shinn, pick up on that point.  You mentioned -- and you make a very good case in your paper for the fact that there is not just one Taliban but four shuras, three associated groups.  And that's just the beginning of the fractionation of local warlords.  And if you got into a negotiation, it could fractionate further.

Reflecting on that very tough reality, how do you get another side -- the other side to the table?  How do you define what it's about?  How do you keep it there?  How do you shape a Taliban actor?

SHINN:  Well, that's a complicated -- that's a complicated topic.  But I would only make, I mean, two observations in this context.

The first is that the process needs to start -- if you start it -- under some reasonable level of confidentiality, not just for basic --

DOBBINS:  Right.

SHINN:  -- diplomatic common sense, as we've all been told by Ahmed Rashid in his latest article.

Was it in the FT?

DOBBINS:  FT -- (inaudible).

SHINN:  But also because they're so fragmented on the other side, and they are fragmented including al-Qaida, which means that if I am sent -- you know, if I'm Tayabaga (ph) or somebody sent by Mullah Omar or one of the shura to go talk to Jim Dobbins in Qatar or someplace, you know, I can be reasonably sure that there's a bullet -- you know, there's a target on my back and al-Qaida would not hesitate to shoot me, or some other member of some disaffected complex decision-making process.

So I think more discretion and confidentiality than any other discussion of this nature that I'm aware of probably is almost a precondition for successfully bringing this off.

The second equally complicated topic, but it's on the other end of the process, would be for our former colleague John Allen, as well as Ryan Crocker and our NATO allies, who would be faced with the tricky tactical problem of fighting a war while supporting a negotiation, a peace negotiation.

There's a long list of operationally complicated, delegated and potentially dangerous decisions that they would have to make in order to synchronize the diplomatic and the military conduct of this campaign.

WISNER:  I'm going to try an equally tough one on Jim Dobbins.

You spelled out two different Pakistani narratives.  How do you narrow that down to one narrative?  For the sake of those that may not have read the chapter, remind us what the two are.  But how do you get to one narrative so you can deal with it?  And then how do you get the Pakistanis to engage once they've settled on the narrative?

DOBBINS:  Well, the narratives are, alternatively, what the Pakistanis told us when we were in Islamabad -- and we met with the ISI as well as the civilian leadership -- which is that they share our interest in bringing peace, that they want the Afghan Taliban out of Pakistan and back into Afghanistan but not in a position of dominating the country.  They recognize that having a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul would just open the way to a replication of what they experienced in 2001.

But they would like the Taliban sufficiently influential within the Afghan government so that, on the one hand, they have an incentive to get out of Pakistan and stop interfering in Pakistan, and, secondly, that they preserve -- although they didn't say so -- Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, the principal interest of which is to keep the Indian secret service away from the Pakistani border and away from dissident elements within Pakistan whom they believe the Indians are currently assisting, particularly in Baluchistan.

So that's one narrative, and under that narrative Pakistani interests and American interests coincide considerably.

The other narrative is that they want a sympathetic force to dominate the government of Afghanistan, for the same reason: to prevent it from becoming allied with India, which has far more to offer Afghanistan in terms of economic assistance and other -- and commerce, and that they're going to continue to support the Taliban with that kind of outcome in view, that they believe we're leaving, that they believe the situation will revert to what they found in the 1990s, and that they have the possibility of again putting their clients in power in Kabul and in most of the rest of the country.

How do you get them to decide?  I mean, I think elements of the Pakistani government share -- you know, favor one or the other of those.  This is not so much cognitive dissonance as different factions.  But also, to some degree, even individuals may waver between one or the other, and I don't think anything short of a negotiating process will actually bring them to address these issues and come to some kind of consolidated position.  In other words, it's only by actually forcing them to engage in a process of negotiation, which they claim to want, that you can -- that they can reconcile these tensions in their own position.

WISNER:  It makes sense to me.  Well, one more question and then over to the audience and that's ourselves, the United States and Karzai, the third how-do-you.  How do you get ourselves and the Afghans onto the same side, working towards relatively common objectives in a negotiation where the stakes are this high?

SHINN:  I think probably by acknowledging that the objectives are similar but different in many respects.  It's illusory to think that all of the Karzai government or his loyal opposition's interests are identical with ours.  They certainly aren't on a longer time scale.  So some useful clarity to have that, you know, in your eye -- in your eye from the beginning.

And the ultimate humility I think would be the second useful point.  Jim originally used this notion of a three-ring circus, not with any humor intended about a circus but the fact that one has to orchestrate several -- if it's to be successful or if it's even to get started you need to align several different spheres delicately with the internal sphere, the center ring.

The core essentially consists of reconciliation, an intra-Afghan reconciliation for which the players on the outside have some leverage to help craft but limited.  At the end of the day, this will have to be an intra-Afghan decision.

WISNER:  When I call on you, would you do me the favor since I can't read from this distance all of your nametags, please introduce yourselves.  The first question, however, goes to Wolfgang.  You had your hand up.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Well, first of all, really congratulations to you both.  What you have done here I think is a major contribution in a perfect time.  Isn't it sort of amazing that we meet 10 years after President Bush's speech where he outlined four reasons why we were going to Afghanistan -- to destroy and decapitate al-Qaida, to destroy and decapitate the Taliban, to kill or fetch Osama bin Laden and to kill or fetch Mullah Omar.

Well, since May 2nd this year, it looks a little bit different this equation.  But I wanted to raise a couple of critical issues.  Number one, who is negotiating here?  Who are the Afghans?  Are we talking about Hazaras?  Are we talking about the Tajiks, the Uzbeks or the Pashtuns?

Number two, on whose behalf are we negotiating?  Who are these outside interests?  As I have done in many publications, what about the macroregion?  What about Chinese interests?  What about Saudi interests?  What about Turkish interests?  Especially, and that's the important point, in a time when the new player on the block is the United States of America.  And there are many, as we all know, who would like this new player on the block to have an out than more steady in.

And thirdly, on whose interests are we negotiating?  At the end, as we discussed before, it is, as I always call it, by, for and with the Afghans in Afghanistan.  So it is on them to, A, set the terms, B, decide with whom they want to negotiate, and C, about what and which time frame.

And as Jim Shinn rightly pointed out, and as I have sort of lifted last couple of month, especially July 4th -- many of you could read it -- quite intensely, well, there are several negotiations -- critical negotiations right now going on.  One of them is for the SOFA.  How many of the U.S. troops are standing there, in which base, who's running what and whatever?

Secondly, there were attempts to negotiate with the Taliban and we all know how that ended.  And thirdly, yes, very importantly, there are extremely excruciating financial and fiscal negotiations going on, not just a couple of banks and others.  So there is a whole spectrum of negotiations actually ongoing and I don't even want to bring in the 1267 issue and the separation between al-Qaida and Taliban.

And pity that some people from over there are not here right now, where we would see how sensitive these subjects are.  And finally, Joschka Fischer always said in our classes, it all works best if united -- if there is one leader and one perceived leader.  And in our case, we hope it would be the United States in a leading fact.

But if this perspective of leadership, of an engaged leadership where there is -- where the Afghans would tell, you know, it's not like 1989.  They really mean to stay here.  They have the wherewithal, they have the resources and they have the will to stay here.  How in the absence of this are we going to conduct effective negotiations?

DOBBINS:  Well, several questions embedded there.  For the purposes of analysis, we identified three Afghan -- three Afghan participation -- participants:  the insurgency, the Afghan government and the legal opposition.  And Karzai has made an effort to engage the legal opposition.  He's created a peace council.  It's chaired by his predecessor as president -- Rabbani, who's a Northern Alliance leader.

There's still some skepticism on the part of other Northern Alliance people if these negotiations get started.  Karzai's going to have to work hard to enlarge that circle.  We at one point try to show graphically here.  We have all the participants in the negotiation of whom we have about a dozen including external/internal, and then we have everything they want or don't want.

And if things are green, it means their interests are aligned and where they're red, they're not aligned.  And as you can see, interestingly, it's mostly green, not mostly red.  So there is a good deal of coincidence of interests.  Now, your last question -- your last point, Wolfgang, which I've briefly --

QUESTIONER:  The leadership --

DOBBINS:  Oh leadership, yeah.  I mean, I think -- I think we have to be careful about that.  I think too prominent an American role actually could be counterproductive.  I think the Afghans have to be seen to be in the lead even if they are in fact operating largely as a result of external pressures and those pressures have to be fairly delicate, fairly subtle and fairly quiet.

Certainly in the Bonn Conference in 2001, I made every effort to stay out of the limelight as the lead American negotiator.  I never spoke to the press except on background.  I left the day before the closing ceremony so I wouldn't even be in the picture and let Brahimi and the Afghans take the credit for an outcome which the United States was certainly somewhat influential in bringing about.

And I think to some degree that kind of American leadership -- maybe as Obama would say or his staff, leadership from behind -- might not be inappropriate.  I think Marc Grossmann who succeeded Dick Holbrooke has been given the task of managing the diplomacy.  I think there's an agreement within the administration on that.  I think he clearly has the lead.  And I think he's the sort of person who can pull off that trick if anybody can.

WISNER:  Good.  Jean-Marie, would you like to -- you've been as close to the Afghans as virtually anybody in this room.  How does this approach strike you?

QUESTIONER:  Well, I fundamentally agree with the approach.  I think the one point that needs to be made is what's the alternative to negotiation.  In a way, the strongest argument for negotiation is to have a clearer picture of what happens if there is no negotiation.  With all the difficulties of a negotiation, I think we know them -- participants, all of the incentives, all of that is there.

Now, if there is no negotiation, I think I would be interested to know what kind of realistic scenario then develops.  My own view, it's a fairly dire scenario that will really destabilize not just Afghanistan with a renewed intensified civil war but probably in Pakistan and countries in Central Asia.

And if that case is made, then there is, I think, a stronger case to be made to take some risks in the negotiation.  If that case is not made, then I think one can continue with business as usual.

SHINN:  Yeah, it is.  It will be pretty dire and either of the war-without-end scenarios has dire regional consequences, not to mention horrible for the Afghans themselves.  So to us, one of the more interesting questions, which we tried to poke at but due among other things to the length of the book we couldn't explore, is the process by which the other regional actors think through the consequences for them of this dire negative regional effect.

We got a glimmer of that as we made the rounds with Lakhdar and Tom Pickering.  And Jeff Laurenti may want to speak to that.  You attended a couple of them too.

But I was struck on reflection by how on the one hand most of the regional actors, including the Russians for example, who would suffer from a prolonged negative outcome were really unprepared to step forward and provide anything other than lip service to, yeah, peace accord is a good idea.

There are not a lot of actors, at least as far as we could see, including the Chinese for example, who appear to be willing to step forward and encourage the process.  In fact, to the contrary, there were intimations that they were prepared diplomatically to pick the Americans' pocket as the price just for allowing a process to go forward, which is a depressing enough conclusion.

One of our Russian colleagues, who again, I have to -- I can't quote by name -- said, yes, we do hope you Americans get defeated in Afghanistan but not too quickly and not too badly.  Thanks a lot, right?

DOBBINS:  I'd just say one thing.  I mean, I think that the United States won't succeed in these negotiations unless it has an alternative which is almost as good and is at least as bad and indeed worse from the standpoint of the opposition.  So the United States has to prepare for two futures.

One is a future in which the negotiations succeed, we go home and the country remains more or less peaceful.  The alternative is negotiations don't succeed, we don't go home.  We reduce our presence.  We continue to support the Kabul regime and the current conflict continues more or less indefinitely.

And we have to make clear that that second one is an option that we're prepared to commit to if we're going to have the slightest chance of achieving the more desirable outcome.

QUESTIONER:  But is that a credible --

DOBBINS:  Twenty thousand American troops indefinitely, yes, I think it is.  But I mean, you know, everyone here is probably as good a domestic policy analyst as I am.  So you can all make your judgments.

WISNER:  Twenty thousand American troops and a price tag.

DOBBINS:  Twenty thousand American troops and several billion dollars a year, that's right.

SHINN:  Can I just underscore that?  I mean, I want to make -- with typical parsimony, we only said it once.  We only said it once in the book.

But it's a pretty emphatic point which is if you want to negotiate a peace accord that meets your minimum objectives, you have to be prepared to fight indefinitely under fairly unpleasant circumstances, perhaps at a reduced level.  But you can't plug in a timetable for retreat or you will be ejected under ugly circumstances from Afghanistan.

WISNER:  Richard Haass?

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, I'm at the disadvantage of not having read it.  So that stated, I won't be held back.  You began with what I thought was a quite specific and limited goal, which is to break the link between al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But it seems to me your policy recommendation goes far beyond that because every -- that might be our goal going into a negotiation but that's certainly not the goal of the other players.  The Taliban have their set of goals.  Pakistan has its set of goals.

The neighbors, from Iran to India and everybody else, have their set of goals.  The Afghan government has its.  Various Taliban factions will have theirs.  So while I haven't looked at your chart with the overlapping --

SHINN:  I was going to pass it to you right now, Richard.

QUESTIONER:  But I'm surprised because it seems to me that we have a specific narrow limited goal.  But there's all sorts of questions about the future of Afghanistan that are, if you will, totally separate from this.  So I guess my question is, why end the negotiation?

DOBBINS:  As opposed to what?

QUESTIONER:  Simply a declaration or a communication where we basically say our only -- as Mr. Baker might put it -- dog in this hunt is that we break the link between Taliban and al-Qaida and we don't have a particular case about the future of Afghanistan as much as we have certain preferences.

But if the Taliban reestablish or maintain certain links or expand them, we will attack them the same way we do groups in Yemen, Somalia, conceivably one day Libya.  But if you essentially don't pursue that link, then essentially you can go pursue your own ends in Afghanistan.  Why do we -- it seems to me that if you go down the path of a negotiation, you've by definition expanded your ambitions.

It seems to me you're setting yourself up for failure.  I don't see -- it's not clear to me why our interests demand it if our only core interest is to break this link.  Why don't we simply make a declaratory policy and carry it out the same way we carry out various forms of counterterrorism missions in other countries?  And I would think it's going to become the template for American foreign policy down the road.

DOBBINS:  I guess I'd answer the question two ways.  First of all, as long as Afghanistan remains in conflict, in civil war, the opportunities for extremist groups -- parasites essentially -- to take advantage of that will remain.  And there's no way of isolating the civil war from global jihadists' ambitions and activities.  If it's in civil war, it's going to present fertile ground to those groups.

And at least one side is going to see advantages in securing support from those groups.   The counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency argument that has raged both in academia and indeed in the administration according to Bob Woodward and others is, I think, a false choice.  The objective of any counterinsurgency campaign is to prevent the insurgents from overthrowing the government and taking over the country.

If the Taliban overthrow the government and take over the country while they continue to be aligned with al-Qaida, which they're going to continue to be as long as the civil war continues you're not going to be able to conduct an effective counterterrorism campaign because you'll lack the bases, you'll lack the intelligence.

And you'll be reduced to sort of the Clinton policies of long-range strikes against targets which have largely been vacated by the time your missile gets there.  So if we retreat to a counterterrorism strategy of just going on night raids and targeting predators, it means we've turned the counterinsurgency over to Karzai.

QUESTIONER:  I think that's an extreme --

DOBBINS:  But we're still counting on and preventing the Taliban from taking over.

QUESTIONER:   But that's an extreme and worst-possible case analysis. A more likely one is what you yourself are saying we would be prepared to do, where we'd have counterterrorism-plus, we'd have a degree of advisers.  We'd have a degree of trainers.  We wouldn't totally vacate the place.  My hunch is they wouldn't be overthrown in part because what we've done over the last 10 years.

The Taliban will make some inroads but they're not going to simply walk through Afghanistan.  And that becomes a long-term basis of American foreign policy.  We could say whether it's 5,000 or 10,000.

I don't think it needs to be 20,000.  But why isn't that a realistic -- because indeed if anything by declaring that as our policy sooner rather than later, it seems to me we actually increase the chances for your negotiation to win because that gets you beyond 2014.

DOBBINS:  I think you're essentially -- you reverse the sequence but you basically recommend exactly what we recommend, which is that you have to have an alternative to a successful negotiation which is almost as good if the negotiation is going to succeed and the alternative is Karzai does the counterinsurgency, we do the counterterrorism and we continue that indefinitely into the future.

WISNER:  It's interesting.  I must say, I didn't read Richard Haass' question the same way and I may be misinterpreting you.  But it struck me a point you were driving at is how as you proceed with the negotiation that you've indicated, Jim and Jim, how do you take these rather narrow U.S. aims and accomplish those without losing your way in the many other desiderata of the parties?

How do you -- how do you make it possible for us to end our part of this game for whatever happens in the rest of the negotiation?  It's relevant because even on our side there are going to be questions you point to -- social, constitutional questions, which you yourselves argue are not part of our core negotiated requirements.  So how do you shield yourself?

SHINN:  Well, I'm not sure if you can shield yourself in a liberal democracy where everybody debates Afghan strategy every day.  But at least if you're the person in the hot seat, some clarity about the priority of your objectives -- counterterrorism on the one hand versus, let's say, promotion of gender rights on the other.

And what you're prepared to pay, not just what you're prepared to say, but what you're prepared to pay in terms of money and lives to achieve counterterrorism on the one hand or gender rights on the other is a useful point of departure.

DOBBINS:  And we say that the U.S. at these negotiations should confine itself to positions that advance our core interests, which we've identified, and avoid direct engagement on issues of social policy and other essentially Afghan questions, except insofar -- and this is a big except -- except insofar as those issues are likely to undermine the likelihood that the settlement will stick because if the settlement doesn't stick, then you're back to your option number two.

So that does mean using your influence to try to broker compromises among conflicting parties.  We can't do anything about what the other parties want. We can't effectively exclude most of them from the negotiating process.  And so you have to deal with their positions. But your objective in doing so should be getting a settlement that sticks and that meets our basic objective.

WISNER:  Professor Nadiri?

QUESTIONER:  I wanted to mention that the problem is that this negotiation isn't -- when it achieves its goal -- wouldn't sustainable.  I've raised this issue with Jim Shinn for some time.  And secondly, the repercussion of a withdrawal of the United States would not be confined to Afghanistan.  If I were -- the position in Afghanistan will not be strong enough to really fend off some of the elements and the question would be that the Taliban will not disarm themselves.

So that will be always there and consequently you have to deal with that.  And if you give them the southern part of Afghanistan, because of the economic disparity that exists between the north and the south, they cannot sustain themselves.  So either will go north or they will go south.  And the Talibanization of Pakistan is already there.  And the jihadism is getting fairly sizable activities.

And suppose in an unlikely situation, in a very unlikely situation, that this spreads and a few pipelines in Saudi Arabia gets blown up.  What will be the price of economic disaster in the West?  So this sort of naivete of the situation is such that if the United States wants to withdraw, it has to have plan A, plan B, plan C to protect its interest in other places as well because one likelihood would be that.

And secondly, the failure of the Americans to basically give a pass to Pakistan for so long on each account for what reason.  It just looks like a bad boy in a house and every time it has a headache you have to give them a little pass and here's another drug or something.

We help the military and the like and so forth and so on and the lack of it worries the American policy and the Afghans as a whole is always raising this question.  Where is the American long-term policy?

And so long that the parties as well as some of the other neighbors as well as was pointed out very well are interfering in Afghanistan because of the ethnic proximity that everybody has to each other, all you have to do is just give them some more money and then somebody will rise against you because of this serious poverty issue that has not been resolved.

And now we have given a whole bunch of people, as was mentioned, the activities like roads and many people -- 7 or 8 million kids are in schools and the like of it and so on.  So these will not hold if that situation changes.  And the consequence of it would be that after all, since 1978 Afghanistan was a peaceful country.

It had the same tribes and so forth and so on, the Soviet Union and the United States got into the business of getting in the middle of a Cold War and millions and millions of Afghans got killed and they went all over the world.  Is there some notion of just sort of simply political -- (inaudible).

Coming up to this issue of the negotiation, I think that the key issue is that the terms of this negotiation which will be resolved basically by negotiation has to be defined earlier.  Otherwise you will compromise a great deal and the nonclarity of that will be a major, major issue for the outcome of Afghanistan.  But this is -- Afghanistan I would say would be kind of almost a cancerous development.  And it will continue to expand and contract and so forth and so on.

So a long-term policy and a vision has to be there and I think there is no other choice for the United States.  You know, why couldn't we just hold a new diplomatic effort that will bring the interests of all those people together the way the two Jims have defined their interests.

So essentially, lead to an Afghanistan which will neutralize it.  And some investment in this economic development that will sustain the population.  Why is the United Nations doesn't take that undertake?  How long is this going to continue?  Thank you.

WISNER:  Jean-Marie, you had a point you wanted to add?

QUESTIONER:  Yes, I wanted to react to the notion that the alternative to negotiation could be sort of a long-term, low intensity conflict with minimal U.S. presence.  I personally don't think it's a sustainable proposition.  I'm not talking there about the U.S. side.  That I don't know.  But in Afghanistan, what that means and I think there I would just expand on what Professor Nadiri just said.

It poisons -- it will poison Afghanistan.  It will poison the whole region.  The notion that you just have that war going on without having reverberation in Pakistan and in Central Asia, I think is wrong.  And we haven't discussed much India during the discussion.

I think as you -- as that conflict continues, eventually India will get drawn in more than it has -- I mean, it has been drawn but it will get more and more drawn in.  And so the India-Pakistan dimension instead of moving away will become more and more a factor in a conflict with all the very dangerous implications of that.

So I see the point that if you want negotiation, you have to be able to sit tight and say, I could do without negotiation.  But at the same time I think the alternative is not very, very credible, which makes a negotiation difficult but absolutely necessary.

WISNER:  Well, Jean-Marie, I think maybe you've said the last word.  This may be thanks to Jim Dobbins', Jim Shinn's excellent document.  We're reminded how hugely complicated it is to bring together a negotiation over Afghanistan -- really difficult to bring together, to pursue, to proceed and to bind an outcome.

But Jean-Marie, you made the point the alternative is extraordinarily dangerous.  And so we are all caused to want to come back and read very carefully Jim and Jim, your good work and Jeff, a special thanks to Century for godparenting this effort.

SHINN:  Well, you could use a phrase with which Lakhdar Brahimi ends each of his meetings.  He says, thank you for your time.  We're still confused but now we're confused in a more sophisticated way.  (Laughter.)

WISNER:  Thank you all.  Thanks very much.  (Applause.)

 

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Afghan Peace Talks (Audio)

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