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America’s Missed Chance for Afghan Deal

The Washington Post is publishing excerpts of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by its staff writer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran a decidedly mixed review of the book that I wrote. I won’t repeat my major criticisms here. Rather, I’d like to focus on yesterday’s excerpt in the Post which contained the claim the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a deal with the Taliban in 2010-2011 at the height of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan because of animus among White House staffers and other officials against special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who favored such a deal. Chandrasekaran writes:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.

That there was animus against Holbrooke, who had, as they say, an outsize personality, is undeniable. That this led the Obama administration to miss a chance to end the war is fanciful speculation unsupported by any evidence I am aware of.

Can Chandrasekaran point to any actual signs the Taliban were ever likely to sign a peace deal? As he mentions in passing in his book, in 2010 Pakistan actually locked up the No. 2 Taliban official, Mullah Abdual Ghani Baradar, precisely because Islamabad feared he would be open to a negotiated settlement that could cause the Taliban to drift out of Pakistan’s control. More recently, the White House expressed willingness to release five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as a “confidence-building” measure for peace talks. Nothing came of that deal.

The calculation of military commanders in Afghanistan was that as they ramped up pressure on the Taliban, there would be more defections from their ranks, which has indeed occurred, but that there would be no chance of reaching a meaningful peace deal with the Taliban–one that did not grant them so many concessions that the old Northern Alliance would recreate itself and launch a new civil war–until the insurgents had suffered significant battlefield defeats.

The insurgency has indeed suffered real defeats in southern Afghanistan, as even Chandrasekaran concedes, but the potential for meaningful negotiations has been to a large extent lost because of President Obama’s ill-advised move to set deadlines on America’s military involvement–first for the removal of surge troops and now for the removal of the bulk of other troops. Those deadlines have undermined the ability of our troops to have strategic effects and have undoubtedly made the Taliban less likely to negotiate in seriousness because they figure they can simply wait us out. That, rather than any snubs Holbrooke may have suffered, helps to account for the failure of peace talks.