pushes Osama onto Afghan
chessboard By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - United States President
Barack Obama and top administration officials have
taken advantage of the killing of Osama bin Laden
to establish a new narrative suggesting the event
will pave the way for negotiations with the
Taliban for peace in Afghanistan.
good news message, reported by Washington Post
senior editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Tuesday,
suggested that the administration would now be
able to negotiate a deal that would make it
possible for the United States to withdraw its
troops from Afghanistan.
Chandrasekaran article quoted a "senior
official" as saying that bin
Laden's death at the hands of US forces "presents
an opportunity for reconciliation that didn't
exist before". The official suggested that
administration officials were seeking to "leverage
the death into a spark that ignites peace talks".
The claim of new prospects for peace
conveyed to Chandrasekaran appears to be dependent
mainly on the assumption that Taliban leaders in
Pakistan will now fear that they will be captured
or killed by US forces, as was Bin Laden.
An official familiar with administration
policy discussions on Afghanistan said the fact
that the United States could locate and kill Bin
Laden "so deep inside Pakistan" is presumed to
"have an impact on the Taliban's thinking".
The idea that US policy is now on the road
to an "end game" in Afghanistan glosses over a
central problem: the publicly expressed US
determination to keep a US combat presence in
Afghanistan indefinitely is not an acceptable
condition to the Taliban as a basis for
The Chandrasekaran report
anticipated the announcement soon of a "strategic
partnership agreement" between the United States
and the government of President Hamid Karzai as
"another potential catalyst for talks".
But that agreement is likely to reduce the
Taliban willingness to open negotiations with the
US rather than increase it, because it is expected
to include a provision for a long-term US military
presence to conduct "counter-terrorism operations"
as well as training.
None of the Taliban
officials interviewed by Pakistani officials on
behalf of the United States last year said that
there could be a peace agreement in which US
troops would be allowed to stay in Afghanistan.
"There is no doubt that the number one aim
of the Taliban in negotiations would be getting
the US military to leave," said Michael Wahid
Hanna, a program officer at the Century
Foundation, who attended meetings held by a task
force sponsored by the foundation with a wide
range of Taliban and former Taliban officials in
Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hanna said the
signing of an agreement for a long-term US
military presence in Afghanistan "would not be a
helpful step" for starting peace negotiations.
The new narrative portrays the Obama
administration as sharply divided between military
and Pentagon leaders who want to maximize the
number of troops in Afghanistan for as long as
possible and some civilian advisers who want a
much bigger and faster drawdown.
description of the policy debate on Afghanistan,
which is accurate as far as it goes, fails to make
clear that the civilians in question - including
Obama himself - are not aiming at withdrawing all
US forces from Afghanistan, even if there is a
negotiated agreement with the Taliban.
an interview with 60 Minutes airing Sunday
night, Obama says the Bin Laden killing
"reconfirms that we can focus on al-Qaeda, focus
on the threats to our homeland, train Afghans in a
way that allows them to stabilize their country.
But we don't need to have a perpetual footprint of
the size we have now."
hints at his intention to continue to maintain a
much smaller military "footprint" in Afghanistan
for many years to come.
report suggested that that the real obstacle to
beginning talks has been the unwillingness of the
Taliban to renounce its ties with al-Qaeda.
But there is no need for more pressure on
the Taliban on the issue of its ties with
al-Qaeda, according to observers who have met with
Well before Bin Laden's
assassination, some senior Taliban officials with
ties to the Quetta shura made statements to the
Century Foundation Task Force that appeared to be
open to such a commitment. "They said this can
happen - something to that effect - as part of an
agreement," recalled Jeffrey Laurenti, director of
foreign policy programs for the Century
Foundation, who accompanied task force members in
In early December 2009,
the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" - the
official name by which the Taliban identifies
itself - sent out a statement to press
organizations declaring it had "no agenda of
meddling in the internal affairs of other
countries and is ready to give legal guarantees if
foreign forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan".
Although it did not explicitly mention
al-Qaeda in the statement, it was clearly a
response to the Obama administration pointing to
Taliban ties with al-Qaeda as central to the
rationale for the US-North Atlantic Treaty
But the Taliban are not
expected to make a declaration explicitly naming
al-Qaeda in advance of an agreement, much less
before negotiations begin. "It makes no sense for
the Taliban to concede this point on the front end
- without receiving any commensurate concession
from the other side," the Century Foundation's
Hanna told the Associated Press this week.
"They portray any pre-emptive severing of
ties as a type of unilateral partial disarmament,"
The new narrative also suggests
that the killing of Bin Laden may now reduce
another obstacle to peace negotiations - Pakistani
policy. US officials were said to believe that
Pakistani officials had "interfered with peace
efforts in the past", but now that Pakistan is
under fire for possible complicity in Bin Laden's
living near the capital for years, "have an
opportunity to play a more constructive role".
Pakistani policy has opposed peace
negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan
regime behind Pakistan's back. But contrary to the
new narrative, Pakistan has been more eager to
begin peace negotiations than the United States.
Pakistan has long complained that it was
not being informed about US negotiating aims and
strategy - especially with whom the United States
is willing to talk and whether it hopes to impose
stiff demands on the Taliban through military
force. Speaking at the New America Foundation on
April 22, Pakistani Foreign Minister Salman Bashir
hinted strongly that his government disagrees with
the US strategy of hoping that military pressure
will yield a better settlement.
Islamabad we have our own assessment of the
situation in Afghanistan," said the foreign
minister. "The US says the momentum of the Taliban
has been halted, but is fragile and reversible.
Our own assessment is that the security situation
has continued to deteriorate."
Obama administration narrative seems to suggest
that Pakistan will now display a less skeptical
attitude toward US diplomatic strategy and urge
the Taliban to negotiate despite the signals of US
determination to keep a long-term military
presence in Afghanistan.
Porter is an investigative historian and
journalist specializing in US national security
policy. The paperback edition of his latest
book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power
and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published