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Taliban Talks, a Balancing Act

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 24, 2012

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The United States is looking actively into peace negotiations with the Taliban to end the fighting in Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel, who headed the strategic review of Afghanistan for President Obama in the first months of his administration, says that peace talks "are a long shot at the very best," but he adds that "that's no reason not to try." He says that one of special envoy Marc Grossman's many difficult challenges "is to probe the Taliban to see if they are serious about more than prisoner releases while at the same time keeping the Karzai government comfortable that we're not selling out their interests. Another major issue, he says, is that Pakistanis are angry over cross-border incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan and think "the best outcome is that the Americans and NATO go and never come back."

Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as the special Afghan-Pakistan negotiator, has just visited the region to talk about the possibility of peace negotiations with the Taliban to be held in Qatar. Do you think we're close to peace talks or are peace talks really just an illusion right now?

I think that the talks are a long shot at the very best for a number of reasons. First, so far it's not clear that the Taliban leadership--that's Mullah Mohammed Omar and his Quetta Shura--are interested in anything more than Afghan prisoner releases from Guantanamo and perhaps driving a wedge between the NATO alliance on the one hand and the Karzai government on the other. What the Taliban has said so far is that it's prepared to talk to America and NATO, but it still regards the Karzai government as illegitimate and a stooge of the West.

The fact of the matter remains that we continue to be threatened by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda sympathizers next door in Pakistan.

What we need is a political reconciliation in Afghanistan, and it's not clear yet that the Taliban want that. It is clear that the whole prospect of negotiations with the Taliban creates tremendous unease and uncertainty in the Karzai government and in the Northern Alliance of political parties [non-Pashtun parties] that back the Karzai government. So I think one of Grossman's many difficult challenges here is to probe the Taliban to see if they are serious about more than prisoner releases while at the same time keeping the Karzai government comfortable that we're not selling out their interests. That's a very difficult challenge. I think it is worth pursuing, but I think we should have our expectations very low.

The Obama Administration has already announced that the bulk of the U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn by the end of this summer and that the whole NATO operation is due to conclude by the end of 2014. So is there really much incentive for the Taliban to do more than just wait?

The Taliban from day one has always believed that time was on its side, and the timelines that have been developed by the NATO alliance certainly reinforce that sense in the Quetta Shura and among their Pakistani supporters that they only have to wait us out. The fact of the matter remains that we continue to be threatened by terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda sympathizers next door in Pakistan, and we will need a security relationship with Afghanistan in order to be able to stage drone and commando attacks against those terrorist organizations. The timeline definitely encourages the perception that the United States is not going to stay long, but on the other hand our strategic interests oblige us to find a way to deal with the threats emanating from that part of the world past 2014.

Do you think the Afghan situation is going to become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign this year?

Governor Mitt Romney in one of the last debates said he was against negotiations with the Taliban and criticized the timelines that the Obama administration has laid out. Most of the Republican field has been quite hawkish on Afghanistan so far, except for Ron Paul. So if they are going to mount an attack on the president, then it is likely to come more from the right than the left.

Public opinion in the United States doesn't place Afghanistan at the top of the electoral issues or even at the top of the foreign policy electoral issues. Watching the Republican debates, you rarely hear the word Afghanistan or Pakistan. That could change. But so far it doesn't seem to be a driving political issue in the 2012 campaign.

What was the thinking within the Obama administration when it took office? Did it contemplate then pulling out this quickly? Obama had campaigned on strengthening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and one of his first actions was to increase the number of forces there. What's changed?

When President Obama came into office, he inherited a disaster in Afghanistan: a war that we were rapidly losing. It wasn't a stalemate. We were losing the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban were on the march across the country, secure in their bases in Pakistan, and confident that victory was in sight. Three years later, we can't say by any means that success is in sight for our side, but we have blunted the Taliban's efforts to overthrow the Karzai government and we have built up an Afghan army, which is becoming large enough and of sufficient quality that it can probably deal with the Taliban without foreign combat troops by 2015 or so. That's not comparable to a victory on the USS Missouri at the end of WWII [when Japan signed a surrender to Allied forces in August 1945] by any means, but it's a situation that is probably stable enough that the president can feel he has achieved his goal of disrupting and dismantling al-Qaeda and leaving behind an Afghanistan that is capable of dealing with the Taliban threat. That requires, though, that we do stay the course through 2014.

I go back long enough to remember the start of negotiations on Vietnam in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the start of talks with the North Vietnamese. Those talks dragged on until 1973 when the deal was struck, which North Vietnam violated two years later by invading South Vietnam. Do you think these talks could drag on forever too?

I think the likelihood is that these talks even if they're going well are going to take months if not years to produce any serious breakthrough. The Taliban, as we've said, feels time is on its side. It is an extremist organization without much of a track record of pragmatism, and there's the Pakistan factor. It's not at all clear that Pakistan at this time is interested in a peace deal. The evidence out of Pakistan—the fact that they wouldn't even meet with Ambassador Grossman—suggests that the Pakistanis may be determined to do all they can to encourage the Taliban to hang tough and to force NATO to retreat in some very painful way.

For the Pakistani military and intelligence people, what would be their optimum solution?

[W]e can't say by any means that success is in sight for our side, but we have blunted the Taliban's efforts to overthrow the Karzai government and we have built up an Afghan army.

[They want] the Americans and the rest of NATO out of Afghanistan for good and with such a painful memory that they never come back. From the Pakistani army's standpoint, the NATO-American presence in Afghanistan has been nothing but bad news. They blame us for their own domestic militancy problems; they blame us for giving India a foothold in Afghanistan, which they regard as their preserve. Of course, they remain quite angry over the Abbotabad raid [that] killed Osama bin Laden and American drone operations in Pakistan. From their standpoint, the best outcome is that the Americans and NATO go and never come back, and that their ally, their proxy, the Taliban emerges as the dominant, if not central power particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan. That's the optimal outcome for the Pakistanis. I think Ambassador Grossman will try, when he gets an invitation to come to Islamabad as I think he will at some point, to see whether they're interested in trying to make a deal short of their maximum outcome. But it's not at all clear at this point that they are.

Who will Pakistan look to for help? They'll be isolated, won't they?

Pakistan has at least two very powerful allies. One is China, a traditional ally which provides Pakistan with most of its military equipment and with its nuclear plants, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has provided more foreign assistance than any other country in the world over the course of the last half century. Those relationships are quite strong, and in the eyes of the Pakistani army, [they] more than compensate for their very difficult relationship with the United States.

And I take public opinion in Pakistan shares this anti-American view?

Public opinion in Pakistan is overwhelmingly anti-American, fed by a media which is prone to conspiracy theories and which sees America and Israel as the root of all of Pakistan's problems. I should include India in that list too. America, India, and Israel are viewed as the root of all of Pakistan's problems.

And why is Israel dragged into this one?

Because of the Muslim quality of Pakistan. Pakistan, after all, is a country created as a homeland for Muslims. If you go back and read the declarations of the Muslim League in 1946 and 1947 as Pakistan was being created, every time they passed a resolution calling for the creation of Pakistan, they also passed a resolution calling for support for the Palestinian-Arab cause. So this relationship, at least at the rhetorical level, is a longstanding part of the Pakistani strategic and foreign policy thinking.

The book Afghan Peace Talks, a Primer (PDF), put out by the RAND Corporation, said it was worth trying. Are you on the same wavelength as them or do you have more issues with them?

I support the political reconciliation process. It was one of the recommendations from the strategic review I chaired for President Obama three years ago. But from the beginning, I've been skeptical that it will work. I think there are many reasons to doubt the Taliban's seriousness, and with the deterioration of [the] U.S.-Pakistan relationship over the past three years, there is reason to doubt Pakistan. But that's no reason not to try. We should certainly make an effort. After all, if the peace process, political process, fails in Afghanistan, it would be much better if it was clearly the fault of the Taliban than the fault of the United States.

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