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Obama and the Bunkum of “Negotiating from Strength”

strong arm, strength

photo: windsordi (flickr)

In his press conference with President Karzai last week, President Obama suggested publicly for the first time that he will not negotiate with the Taliban until the U.S. military has demonstrated “effectiveness in breaking their momentum”. Obama seemed to be embracing the shibboleth that you don’t negotiate with an adversary until you can do so from a “position of strength”.

That idea has also been pushed by a senior military official to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and by talking heads in the national security elite. The trouble with invoking the superficially appealing notion of a “position of strength” in this context is that it doesn’t correspond to reality.

When your “strength” is built on sand, as it is in Afghanistan, the notion that you must “negotiate from strength” is the worst kind of bunkum.

There is good reason to believe, in fact, that the unnamed “senior military official” and many others in Washington know very well that waiting for another year to begin negotiations will have no real impact on their outcome. As I reported last week there are already signs of serious worry that McChrystal’s strategy is not going to work. First the Defense Department’s report on the war suggests that the Taliban have already achieved considerable success in frustrating the U.S. strategy. Then senior military and civilian officials hinted at the limitations of that strategy to Ignatius.

What has apparently become much clearer to senior officials in recent weeks is that Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry identified a fatal flaw in the McChrystal strategy in his November 6 message to the State Department. The problem is not just Karzai, he observed. The Afghan political elite that is dependent on U.S. support has “little or no political will or capacity to carry out basic tasks of governance.”McChrystal’s strategy assumes that the Afghan government will be able to carry out “rebuilding” — meaning the delivery of governance reform and development — soon after the U.S. clears an area. But as Eikenberry pointed out, “That cadre of Afghan civilians does not now exist and would take years to build.”

Eikenberry’s analysis erred only in being too optimistic. He did not question the capability of U.S. troops to “clear and hold” the areas they chose to occupy. But in fact, as the senior military official who shared his doubts with Ignatius pointed out, some of the areas supposedly cleared by foreign and Afghan troops in the central Helmand river valley in February are still controlled by the Taliban. The idea that McChrystal’s forces will be more successful in clearing Kandahar than they were in clearing central Helmand is not likely to be taken seriously in the Pentagon.

What the DOD report reveals is that the Pentagon doesn’t believe the McChrystal plan to win the hearts and minds of Afghans will have any influence on the Taliban’s readiness to negotiate. The report omitted any reference to that plan in identifying the factors it hopes might “help to set conditions for future reconciliation and reintegration”. The two factors it does mention are the arrests of Taliban officials in Pakistan and what it calls “the operations against lower level commanders”.

The latter phrase refers, of course, to the vastly increased night raids by Special Operations Forces targeting suspected local Taliban leaders, which former Special Operations Commander McChrystal has ordered and continued to support. But far from increasing leverage on the Taliban, those raids – which frequently kill groups of civilians — have created such widespread anger against American troops all across the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan that McChrystal himself was forced to admit that “nearly every Afghan I talk to mentions them as the single greatest irritant.”

Obama should understand by now that postponing negotiations to give McChrystal a free hand for his counterinsurgency war is likely to result in a worse outcome than initiating such negotiations now. It is already clear that the Taliban will escalate their war effort dramatically in the coming months in response to the U.S. troop surge and occupation of their heartland.

Obama isn’t the first president to put off peace talks ostensibly on the theory of “negotiations from strength”. Lyndon Johnson decided against negotiations in 1965, believing U.S. military operations in both North and South Vietnam would strengthen his hand. The result was no negotiated settlement for another eight years. Meanwhile 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had died.

As I argue in my own study of the U.S. path to war in Vietnam, had LBJ agreed to negotiate a settlement in 1965, the United States could at least have salvaged a neutralist regime in South Vietnam for some extended period of time. What the United States got in the end by trying to preserve a “position of strength” was complete defeat.

Obama isn’t ruling out negotiations as early as next year, according to an administration official who parsed his press conference remarks. I suspect that Obama’s decision to let McChrystal have a free hand in his Afghan counterinsurgency sand box for another year not because he believes the strategy will make the Taliban more amenable but because he believes it will help protect him from political attack by the political forces of the right.

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Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter

Investigative historian and journalist covering national security policy; regular contributor to Inter Press Service and author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2006).