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Biden's Bull Session By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 20, 2009


Speaking in Brussels on March 10, Vice President Joe Biden advocated negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan--or at least with the majority (which he assessed at 70 percent) who, he claimed, are thought to be fighting simply for money. 

As a general proposition, Biden’s statement reflects what has been the administration’s directing foreign policy concept even during the presidential campaign: that negotiations (or talks or diplomacy or “engagement”) are the solution to challenges abroad. Leaving aside the fact that there is never one solution to all problems, diplomacy, by definition is not a solution but a method (among others) to reach a solution. When diplomacy is publicly elevated to heights it is not prepared for, or is used to the exclusion of other instruments of inter-state relations, it risks being seen as a disguise for weakness. Ultimately diplomacy, no matter how brilliant its practitioners, has only been as successful as the political, military, and economic strength of the state behind it allowed. Even great diplomats succeeded only because they had strong states behind (Bismarck) or because they took advantage of the international context to establish alliances that maximized the influence of their own weak countries (Talleyrand, Metternich).  

The Obama administration tends to believe--at least officially--that “talking” to Iran could solve the Iranian nuclear threat where years of negotiations by the Europeans (with the Bush administration’s support) failed. They do not explain why their direct talks would be substantively different. The same seems to be intended in the case of North Korea, with similar lack of clarity. Whether advocating negotiations all around the world, changing the language of discourse regarding the Islamist terrorist threat, or renouncing some of the counterterrorism approaches of past years, the common thread seems to be less an embracing of “change” as an almost reflexive attempt to avoid any foreign policy continuity with the previous administration.  

Vice President Biden’s comment is also disturbing for additional reasons, related specifically to Afghanistan and more generally to the most common conflicts this country is and will long be involved in--low intensity counterinsurgency conflicts. As far as Afghanistan goes, even having personnel there, let alone risking life and limb, is widely unpopular in Berlin, Rome, or Madrid, and most European NATO allies (Germany for one) already believe that the Afghan war is lost – a convenient and popular view. Indeed, Der Spiegel ran an article noting that “For Obama, the war in Afghanistan is the good war--as opposed to Bush's bad war in Iraq--and it is important for him that it succeed.… [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [Foreign Minister Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, on the other hand, are just as weary of the subject as their fellow Germans. The talk in Berlin only turns to Afghanistan when German soldiers have been wounded or killed there.”1 Even for the British, our most effective allies in Afghanistan, in a March 15 Sunday Times poll, 64 percent of respondents favored talking to the Taliban, 69 percent said the aim of stabilizing Afghanistan was not sufficiently worthwhile to risk the lives of British troops, and 64 percent thought the war could never be won.2 

Hence a speech calling for “negotiations” with the Taliban--at NATO headquarters, no less--only further discourages the allies at the very time President Obama is asking for higher participation. The fact that the President also recently stated that the war in Afghanistan is not going well did not help, and provided an even more disturbing context to Biden’ s statement. Indeed, when the President is openly skeptical about the Afghanistan war and his Vice President calls for negotiations, while at the same time increasing the number of U.S. troops there and calling for more European contributions, the only result, logically and politically, is confusion and demoralization all around. In this sense, it should be made clear that, perceptionwise, anything short of confidence in victory (i.e. “the war is far from lost” and similar expressions of doubt) only encourages the adversary.  

That said, thorough analysis of the recent past record of negotiations with insurgent/terrorist groups throughout the world suggests that success leading to stable peace agreements is rare and requires conditions that are far from present in Afghanistan. 

To take a few cases, albeit in countries culturally different from Afghanistan, a pattern emerges.  

In Sri Lanka the conflict between the national government and the terrorists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which started in 1984, was repeatedly interrupted by ceasefires, all of which led to a strengthening of the LTTE and more radical demands. As European MP Nirj Deva put it,“President Mahinda Rajapaksa's predecessors spent years engaged in fruitless talks and ceasefires, during which the guerrillas remained committed to their aim of dividing the country, and making demands for political and socio-economic changes that no democracy could accept, even as they carried on killing and kidnapping. Weakening the Tigers militarily has thus always been a necessary condition for achieving a political settlement with Sri Lanka's Tamils.”3 

In Peru, where an insurgency of the Communist Party, a.k.a. Shining Path, had dragged on since in 1980, it was only after the capture of its supreme leader, Abimael Guzman that (fruitless) talks of a ceasefire took place – in Guzman’s jail. Similarly, the Kurdish Workers’ Party’s (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, only called for a ceasefire after he was captured. 

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) started their insurgency in 1964 and agreed to a number of negotiated ceasefires, the latest between 1998-2001. The only results were, in each case, the strengthening of the insurgents and weakening of government control over large swaths of territory.    

There is, of course the case of Central American insurgents, primarily Salvadoran and Guatemalan, having reached negotiated solutions, but this is because the former were not winning and the latter were clearly losing after their key sponsors in the Soviet bloc went out of business. 

While the countries’ individual circumstances vary, the trend one observes is that insurgents who feel they are winning do not negotiate--at best they demand unacceptable conditions. Only insurgents who perceive that they may lose may--just may--consider negotiations. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, generically defined, smells blood and victory--even more so when Obama declares the war not won and Biden offers negotiations. This is all seen in Quetta, Pakistan, where Mullah Omar lives, as further signs of a coming Islamist victory. Hence, the Saudi-sponsored “talks” between Kabul and the Taliban can lead nowhere: the two sides have diametrically opposed values and, even more importantly, expectations for the immediate future.  

It has been said that Afghans cannot be bought, just rented, and this applies today still – but Vice President Biden is mistaken when he suggests that Washington could rent them more easily than Mullah Omar from Pakistan could. First, he spoke of negotiations with “mild” Talibans, and that inevitably means ideological concessions. How many “moderate” Talibans is Biden prepared to deal with and at what price? Would we accept there being no girls schools (as in similar deals in Swat Valley in Pakistan), no kites, no journals, and no legal system other than a Wahhabi shariah?  

The confusion about Afghanistan’s historical tribal and ethnic fragmentation and ideological cleavages manifest in Vice President Biden’s remark raises further questions about the wisdom of his call for talks. To begin with, the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan is what it has always been--a line in the water, a fiction between two “countries” that are both political fictions, ethnically and culturally. With the growth of Islamism in Pakistan, which is by definition hostile to ethnicity and nationalism, the difference between “Pakistani” and “Afghan” Taliban has largely disappeared. That means that Biden’s negotiations with the “Taliban” would actually be talks with Islamist radicals from Swat Valley to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Kandahar and Helmand – a pluri-ethnic, pluri-“national” conglomerate united by radical hostility to everything the United States would require. The fact that a majority of the population there – on both sides of the “border” –accept, and a large and growing minority are prepared to die for, the Islamist cause means that “talks” with “moderate” Taliban would necessarily engage only irrelevant elements.  

So, what is there to “talk” about with the illusory “moderate” Taliban? How many unveiled women should be killed? How much below 90 percent of sharia law should be part of the judicial system? It is the advocates of “negotiations,” not their opponents, who have the burden of proving that “talks” are not another way of giving up--with all the implications of defeat.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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