Talking to the Taliban

Via the New York Times:

President Obama declared in an interview that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

Mr. Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. "There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region," he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.

Interesting. Moreso because for over a week Al Jazeera has been reporting that there were secret talks underway in Afghanistan aimed at reaching an entente with some elements of the Taliban.

As the Afghan Foreign Minister met his US counterpart in Washington in late February, Al Jazeera has learnt of secret talks between Taliban-linked mediators and Afghan officials, which could lead to wider negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The deal involves the return to Afghanistan of Gulbbaldin Hekmatyar, the former Prime Minister, whose forces fight alongside the Taliban. The negogiations involve a complex and delicate round of meetings from the heart of Afghanistan to Dubai, London and Saudi Arabia. From Kabul, James Bays filed the above exclusive report.

More at By The Fault.

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RAND Report Cites Intelligence Failures in Afghanistan and Iraq

A confidential 318 page report prepared by the RAND Corporation, the Santa Monica CA based think tank that specializes in national security issues, that paints a bleak picture of a counterinsurgency effort undermined by intelligence failures that "at times border on the absurd" has been leaked on Wikileaks. The report covers intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is based on over 300 interviews conducted at all levels with American, British, Canadian and Dutch intelligence officers and diplomats.

The report was prepared for the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command and focuses on intelligence and counterinsurgency operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan but it is the comments on the lack of coordination between NATO partners in the Afghan theatre that are causing the greatest stir.  According to the UK Guardian, the marked "For Official Use Only" study was distribution restricted to a select group of NATO coalition war partners and  with the Israelis.

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A Big Tent Meeting on Afghanistan

Today in Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed a major conference on Afghanistan later this month that would include Iran among the invited countries. From the New York Times:
"We presented the idea of what is being called a big-tent meeting, with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan," she said at a news conference here after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. "If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor of Afghanistan."

According to the Secretary of State, the United States has asked the Netherlands to act as host for the Afghanistan conference, which would take place at the end of March and would be chaired by the United Nations. A regional conference on Afghanistan is long over due and including the Iranians is a smart move. While the differences between Tehran and Washington on a whole host of issues is vast and deep, Afghanistan presents an opportunity for confidence building on both sides given that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interest of both Iran and the United States.

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The Road to Damascus Isn't Paved with Preconditions

In her maiden voyage to the Middle East as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced today that the Obama administration will send two senior officials to Syria this weekend to begin discussions with the government of President Bashar Assad. Secretary Clinton, in Jerusalem for her first talks with Israeli officials, described the upcoming meetings with the Syrian government as "preliminary conversations" intended to explore whether Damascus is serious about a new relationship with the United States and rejoining the world community after years of isolation. From the New York Times:

The overture suggests how the Obama administration intends to tackle three interlocking challenges in the Middle East: the nuclear threat posed by Iran; long-simmering tensions between Israel and Syria; and the grinding conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Syria, regional experts say, could be the key to alleviating all three.

By seeking an understanding with Syria, which has cultivated close ties to Iran, the United States could increase the pressure on Iran to respond to its offer of direct talks. Such an understanding would also give Arab states and moderate Palestinians the political cover to negotiate with Israel. That, in turn, could increase the burden on Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, to relax its hostile stance toward Israel.

But in a region where even small steps take years to negotiate, officials sought to tamp down expectations of rapid progress. "It is a worthwhile effort to go and begin preliminary conversations," Mrs. Clinton said, noting Syria's wide influence in the region, as well as its troubled history with the United States. Yet, she cautioned, "we have no way to predict what the future of our relations with Syria might be."

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The Lost Art of Letter Writing & Diplomacy

According to the New York Times, the President sent a secret and hand written letter to Russian President Dimitri Medvedev last month suggesting that the United States would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons. The Bush Administration argued that these deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic were to protect Europe from Iranian missile threats. The Russians thought otherwise and made their displeasure known threatening to point their still vast nuclear arsenal backs toward the continent.  

By linking the deployment of the missile shield in Eastern Europe to Russian cooperation in halting Iran's efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the Administration is putting the Russians on the spot. The question in Moscow right now must be which relationship do we value more, the American or the Iranian? Alternatively, the Russians might try to figure how to bring the Americans and Iranians to a different plane. Furthermore while the Bush Administration effectively ignored Russian concerns to strategic detriment (recognizing Kosovo was a historic blunder), the Obama Administration is actively seeking to incorporate Moscow as a responsible actor with a role to play on the global stage. There is some risk to trusting Moscow, but the offsets are worth the risk.

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