A whopping majority of National Journal’s National Security Insiders support the Obama administration’s renewed push for peace talks with the Taliban—but just as many believe that negotiations are unlikely to pay dividends.
Seventy-four percent of the select pool of national security and foreign policy experts said they supported the administration’s effort to reach a political settlement with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.
Yet 46 percent of Insiders, even though they back the talks, said U.S. negotiations won't make tangible progress. “There has been no change in the conditions that would cause the Taliban to reassess their ultimate goals and no indication those conditions will change dramatically in the future,” one Insider said. “That said, we should leave no stone unturned.” Many stressed the need to keep up military pressure on militants to further increase the chances for political agreement.
With 26 percent of Insiders saying the effort to pursue negotiations is a mistake, three-quarters of all Insiders believe the talks won't pay off. “To set a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and then try to negotiate a political solution we would like to put in place prior to the withdrawal, is a prescription not just for failure, but for embarrassment,” one Insider said.
Insiders referred to the Afghan National Intelligence Estimate reported in the press, which cites concerns the Taliban could use the talks to bolster its own credibility as militants continue to fight ahead of the planned 2014 deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan.
“The Taliban knows we are itching to leave, and will hold out for whatever it wants,” one Insider said. “This is akin to buying a carpet at an outrageous price because the merchant knows that one's spouse insists on the purchase.” Another added: “Sometimes you have to negotiate with unsavory characters, but these are truly bad news dudes. Negotiating with them offers precious legitimacy, which will accrue to their benefit and to the detriment of the Afghan people once the U.S. picks up and leaves.”
A more optimistic 28 percent of Insiders, pointing to the Taliban’s support for opening a negotiating office in Qatar and other positive public statements, said there could finally be a breakthrough in the long-troubled peace talks. “The Taliban are getting tired of getting killed,” one Insider said. Another added: “The Taliban knows we are in withdrawal and are fishing to see what opportunities and/or concessions are to be had. We will do the same. That's why it is called negotiations.”
Separately, nearly all Insiders (91 percent) said they support the Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with the long-sanctioned Myanmar and appoint an ambassador following the release of hundreds of prisoners. “Why make them grovel to our demands before giving them an ambassador?” one Insider said. “We can effect more change with a fully staffed embassy than with envoys dropping in to check on progress.”
“We should have diplomatic relations with every country, even ones we dislike intensely,” another added. “Recognition does not constitute approval, but it opens new channels.”
Citing the release of some 650 political prisoners—a key demand of opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi—and the ceasefire with ethnic rebels as transformative steps, several Insiders said President U Thein Sein seems to be “bent on ending military domination of political power for the first time in a half-century.”
Other Insiders, speaking more cautiously about the progress there, noted the renewal of diplomatic ties is an “easily reversible decision if Myanmar doesn’t continue progress.”
1. The Taliban's political wing said in a recent statement it is willing to enter peace talks with the U.S.-led coalition. Do you think such negotiations, a cornerstone of the Obama administration's strategy for ending the Afghan war, are:
- Appropriate but unlikely to pay dividends 46%
- Appropriate and likely to pay off 28%
- Mistaken and unlikely to pay dividends 26%
Appropriate but unlikely to pay dividends
"The Taliban see time as on their side. If talks allow the US to continue a drawdown and give the Taliban more breathing space, they will engage in talks -- and then continue with their agenda as the US has less and less influence in the country. But as we are drawing down anyway, trying can't hurt."
"Negotiate while using military pressure to increase chances for political agreement."
"The Taliban have interests which do not align with ours or those of the Karzai government. Their interests also support a delay beyond the patience of the U.S. government to remain engaged in Afghanistan."
"The Taliban is growing stronger and will use the talks as a decoy to gain credibility and stall for time as U.S. troops depart Afghanistan, while continuing the fight to regain territory. Even more than in Vietnam, which was always more centralized than Afghanistan, the failure of governance in Afghanistan is the key problem."
"Political solutions are the endgame of COIN. But they are also elusive."
"We still haven't figured out how to solve the problem that the Taliban are still going to be there after we leave. Probably because it's not solvable."
Appropriate and likely to pay off
"The payoff will seem so modest as to barely justify that term, but it will still be better than any alternative without an agreement with the Taliban."
"I believe it's appropriate to open a dialogue. It does not symbolize defeat or surrender. As to whether the talks will pay off, no one can predict that."
"Ten years is a very long time to be at war, and while wars are fought by soldiers, they are started and ended by the political process."
Mistaken and unlikely to pay dividends
"Sometimes you have to negotiate with unsavory characters, but these are truly bad news dudes. Negotiating with them offers precious legitimacy, which will accrue to their benefit and to the detriment of the Afghan people once the U.S. picks up and leaves."
"To set a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and then try to negotiate a political solution we would like to to put in place prior to the withdrawal, is a prescription not just for failure, but for embarrassment."
"The only thing worth negotiating is disarming and reintegrating and I don't think the Taliban are interested in that."
"Forcing Karzai to 'approve' peace talks has already undermined him, which does not help us at this stage."
"We are negotiating from weakness."
2. Do you view the Obama administration's decision to restore diplomatic ties with Myanmar and send an ambassador there following the release of hundreds of prisoners as:
- Appropriate 91%
- Premature 9%
"This is not on auto-pilot. Every step of the way has to be measured."
"This new approach is already paying dividends both in Myanmar and across the region."
"We should, in light of this action, reassess our strategic approach to relations with Cuba."
"Myanmar's leadership appears serious about reform. We should encourage it as much as possible; we need to offset China's influence in that country."
"It provides subtle leverage to use in dealing with China's paranoia of being encircled."
"It is an incremental step by the administration in response to incremental steps by the Myanmar regime."
This is nothing short of miraculous, even if it turns out to be less than what we hope. Congratulations to those (including Sen Webb) who pushed."
"Unfortunately, diplomacy requires talking to repugnant people."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts. They are:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the January 24, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.