Fog of peace

With a gloomy National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan summarized in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post reporting on resumption of peace talks with the Taliban, and the New York Times unveiling the tortured history of the negotiations so far, it is time to consider again the prospects for a negotiated outcome to the war.

For all the heavy breathing and interesting reporting about the negotiations, there is still a lot that is unclear.

The Americans keep on saying the Afghans have to lead the process, but there is little sign of that.  The Americans and Europeans had to bludgeon Karzai into accepting the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, which is no more than a modest but useful preliminary step in the negotiating process. Karzai seems more than a little concerned that his largely Northern Alliance-originated opposition, which fought the Taliban in the 1990s, is not prepared to accept a settlement that brings the Taliban back into Afghanistan’s political life.  Will he run the political risks involved?

It is unclear whether that office will represent all the Taliban, or only Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura.  How the Haqqani network, which does a good deal of the damage in Afghanistan, fits in no one seems to know.  But the Taliban have already let it be known that the Youtube video apparently showing American Marines desecrating Taliban bodies will not make them shy away from talks.

The role of Pakistan is also uncertain.  In the past, Islamabad has gone out of its way to prove that no negotiations can go ahead without its consent.  U.S. drone strikes have resumed in Pakistan, but are the Pakistanis ready to support a U.S.-sponsored negotiating effort headquartered in Qatar?  Islamabad is absorbed at the moment in its own internal power struggles between the civilian government and the army, which was displeased this week when the prime minister fired one of its favorite defense ministers.  Maybe the Pakistanis are distracted?  Or are they on board?

The agreement to open the office requires an American quid pro quo:  release of several Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo.  This is not easy for any American Administration to do, especially as the people the Taliban are asking for presumably really are deadly enemies of the United States. Is President Obama prepared to run the gauntlet of criticism he will get for this in the middle of a reelection campaign?

It is being hinted that the Taliban are prepared to forswear support to international terrorism as part of this deal.  A verifiable pledge of that sort would be more than a confidence-building measure.  It would represent a major diplomatic achievement:  separating the Taliban from Al Qaeda.  In principle, this is conceivable, since the Taliban’s ambitions are largely limited to Afghanistan (and Pakistan), whereas Al Qaeda is waging a global war for establishment of an Islamic caliphate.  The opening of the office in Qatar is certainly not something Al Qaeda would support.  But do we really have a verifiable commitment of this sort?

We also need to remember the difficult choices that lie ahead for the United States.  If the Taliban are going to lay down arms, they are going to want something in return.  There isn’t much to offer.  There is a role in governing Afghanistan nationally, a role in governing provinces where the Taliban are strong, and control over economic resources (drugs, minerals, trade and transport).  Or more likely, some combination of those things.

Oh yes:  and American withdrawal.  It is hard for me to picture the United States, which has sought from Karzai a long-term strategic agreement providing for a continuing American presence after 2014, agreeing to withdraw completely.  But it is also difficult to picture the Taliban accepting a continuing U.S. presence, which is what they have always said they are fighting against.  Compromise on this issue is theoretically possible:  a U.S. military training presence but complete transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans, for example.  But I’m not sure our soldiers are going to be comfortable living and working with an Afghan army that has lots of Taliban reintegrated.  Nor is it easy to picture the Taliban comfortable with the kind of presence such a training mission would require.

All that said, I applaud Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Representative Marc Grossman, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and their German partner Ambassador Michael Steiner for the enormous effort they have made over the past year to open up a negotiating channel.  It would not, of course, have been possible without the extraordinary military efforts the U.S. troops have made.  If the Taliban are ready to talk, it is because at least some of them are tiring of the fight.

But we are still far from peace, and the fog is thick.

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Heading for Belgrade next week

I haven’t been to Belgrade for a long time.  I am looking forward to seeing many friends, meeting new ones and participating in a conference on “What Next for Dealing with the Past in Serbia?” sponsored by the Fund “Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco.”

Here are the questions that are on my mind.  As usual I am open to suggestions of others that I should be asking, and any reading I should be doing:

1.  What is the political lay of the land?  Who is going up, who is coming down?  Why? What role do different issues play:  economic issues, Bosnia, Kosovo?

2.  How far has Serbia’s democratic transition progressed?  Are its courts independent?  Is its parliament doing the kind of oversight that a European parliament should do?  Is its government being held accountable?  Are its institutions reformed?  Are its army and other security forces under civilian control?  Is its press free?  Are its civil society organizations having a real impact?

3.  What are Serbia’s long-term objectives?  Does it continue to believe in the prospect of European Union membership, or is that fading?  Is there interest in NATO membership, or not?  Is anyone seriously interested in aligning Serbia with Russia?

4.  What is Belgrade hoping to achieve in Bosnia?  In Kosovo?  How does it balance those aspirations with its interest in good relations with the U.S. and Europe?  How can the U.S. best use its influence to ensure satisfactory outcomes?

During one of my last trips to Serbia, a prominent civilian of the more nationalist (but anti-Milosevic) variety showed me around Belgrade, pointing out with satisfaction the damage NATO did to security force targets.  He praised the accuracy of most of the strikes and bemoaned the hit on the Chinese embassy.  I gather attitudes have turned more sour since then.  This is not surprising.  I don’t expect anyone to appreciate bombing, even if it is accurate.  What caused the shift?  How far will it go?


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Bashar is right, there is a conspiracy

Bashar al Assad is right.  There is an international conspiracy to bring him down.  The United States, Turkey, much of the Arab League and many European countries want him out.  They are providing aid and comfort to the protesters, though so far as I can tell no arms and little encouragement to violence.

The President’s response in his first public statement in more than six months is to double down, attributing the rebellion to the international conspiracy rather than to an international effort to force him out due to his method of dealing with what originated as a nonviolent rebellion.  He is not being obtuse.  He knows perfectly well what is going on in the streets.  He is trying to survive by rallying nationalist Syrians, especially minorities that fear a Sunni Islamist takeover, against the internationals.

The big question is whether the protesters should remain nonviolent in the face of a brutal doubling down.  My answer is unequivocal:  yes.  Self-defense would of course be more than justified at this point.  But the use of arms by the protesters will enable the regime to convince its shaky security forces to use more violence, reducing the numbers of people in the street.  This is precisely what Bashar al Assad is counting on.

Nonviolence, however, should not mean passive.  The protesters need to increase their numbers.  The Arab League human rights observers have played a useful role in reducing the potential for overt regime violence and thereby encouraging people to go to the streets.  The protesters should be courting them and asking for more, not calling for their withdrawal.  The protesters should also be courting the security forces, which can only be done if the protests remain nonviolent.

The Arab League on Sunday called for UN training for its observers but failed to call on the UN Security Council to denounce the violence and send UN observers.  It is important that the January 19 Arab League meeting overcome the obstacles to calling for UNSC action.  The Syrian National Council should focus on ensuring that it happens.

The continuing splits in the Syrian opposition are mainly these:   secularist/Islamist, violence/nonviolence, international military intervention/no international military intervention.  My own preferences are clear:  I’d choose secularist, nonviolence, no international military intervention, the last because I just do not think it is going to happen.  But in the end, what counts is not what I would choose.  What counts is that the Syrians somehow transcend these differences.  Benjamin Franklin’s advice is apropos:

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately

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This week’s “peace picks”

1.  International Responsibility After Libya, January 9, 10 -11:30 AM, Brookings Institution

The question of international responsibility for protecting civilians at risk has long been a topic of heated debate within the global community. From the protection of civilians in peacekeeping mandates to the principle of “responsibility to protect,” the international community has grappled with the question of its role in protecting people when their governments are unable or unwilling to do so. The NATO-led operation to prevent Muammar Qaddafi’s forces from inflicting mass atrocities on Libyan civilians was the first United Nations-authorized military intervention which explicitly invoked the “responsibility to protect” principle as grounds for action.

The Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement will host a discussion on what the Libyan intervention means for future international efforts to protect civilians. Panelists include Edward Luck, the United Nations special advisor on the responsibility to protect; Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Richard Williamson; Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer; and Irwin Cotler, a Canadian member of Parliament and expert on human rights law. Genser and Cotler are co-editors of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Times (Oxford University Press, 2011). Senior Fellow Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion.

2.  Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea, January 10, 9 – 11:30 am, Center for New American Security

Location:The Willard InterContinental Hotel
Grand Ballroom
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004

American interests are increasingly at risk in the South China Sea. The geostrategic significance of the South China Sea is difficult to overstate – the United States and countries throughout the region have a deep interest in sea lines of communication that remain open to all, both for commerce and for peaceful military activity. Yet China continues to challenge that openness through its economic and military rise and through concerns about its unwillingness to uphold existing legal norms.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will release the report Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea, which examines the future of U.S. strategy in the South China Sea and the impact of territorial disputes on the maritime commons. The event will feature a keynote address by Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, followed by a discussion with a distinguished panel of experts chaired by Richard Danzig, former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, and including Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore to the United States, and report co-authors Patrick Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program and Robert D. Kaplan, Senior Fellow, both of the Center for a New American Security. RSVP here or call (202) 457-9427.

Copies of Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea will be available at the event.

3.  Reframing U.S. Strategy in a Turbulent World: American Spring? January 11, 12:15 – 1:45 pm

New America Foundation

1899 L Street NW Suite 400

The New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program, in association with Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, cordially invites you to join a brown bag lunch U.S. Grand Strategy discussion.


Featured Speakers
Charles Kupchan
Professor of International Affairs, Georgetown University
Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Rosa Brooks   
Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
Bernard Schwartz Senior Fellow, New America Foundation

The Hon. Tom Perriello
Former Member, U.S. House of Representatives
CEO, Center for American Progress Action Fund

Bruce W. Jentleson
Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
Co-Author, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas

Michael Tomasky
Editor, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
Special Correspondent, Newsweek/The Daily Beast

Opening Comments
Steve Clemons
Washington Editor-at-Large, The Atlantic
Senior Fellow & Founder, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation

4.  Democracy Promotion Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat? January 12, 12:15-1:45 pm, Carnegie Endowment

Register to attend

Despite their initial inclination to lower the profile of U.S. democracy promotion, President Obama and his foreign policy team have had to confront a series of urgent, visible cases, from political upheaval in multiple Arab countries and unexpected events in Russia to thwarted elections in Côte d’Ivoire and beyond. Has the Obama administration succeeded in crafting a line that effectively balances U.S. interests and ideals? Or have they—as some critics charge—pulled back too far in supporting democracy abroad?

The discussion marks the launch of a new report by Thomas Carothers, Democracy Promotion under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat? Copies of the report will be available at the event.



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The limits of R2P

The Arab League, meeting today in Cairo, got it right:  it is not their human rights monitors who have failed, it is the Syrian government that has failed to fully implement its commitments to withdraw from cities, stop the violence and release prisoners.  More monitors are needed.  Their withdrawal would allow the regime to intensify its crackdown.

Unfortunately the League failed to ask the UN Security Council to weigh in, a potentially important step towards a resolution condemning the regime’s repression of the demonstrations.  It will be far more difficult for Russia to block such a resolution if the Arab League calls for it.

Is military intervention in the cards?  I don’t think so, and I think it is a mistake for anyone to encourage the demonstrators to think so.  One of their signs reportedly called for an alien invasion.  Syrians are desperate and don’t understand why there is so much international hesitation.

This is why:

  • Russian opposition to anything that might lead to a U.S. or NATO military strike against the Assad regime, which provides Moscow with an important naval base at Latakia.
  • Chinese opposition, which likely has more to do with not wanting a precedent for a military strike on Iran, a major oil supplier.
  • American interest in cutting back military commitments and nervousness about precipitating a civil war in Syria, where the opposition to the regime is still not strong and united.
  • European concerns of the same varieties, especially at a moment of great concern about budget deficits and the stability of the euro.
  • Anxiety in the region and elsewhere that military action could have unintended, negative consequences for Turkey, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon.

So, yes, of course we need a Security Council resolution that denounces the violence and calls on the regime to implement fully the Arab League agreement.  It would be good if it also called for deployment of UN human rights monitors, either alongside or within the Arab League contingent.  But it won’t be backed up with the threat of force.

Some will complain that responsibility to protect (R2P), the UN doctrine under which the NATO led the intervention in Libya, requires military action against the Assad regime.  But responsibility to protect is a principle that applies in the first instance to the authorities of the state in which rights are being abused.  How quickly, even whether, it leads to outside international intervention depends on the particular circumstances, which are not favorable in the Syrian case.


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Righting the civilian/military balance

Someone might imagine that I would be unhappy with the President’s strategic guidance for the Defense Department, released last week.  It reiterates many of the U.S. military’s more traditional roles:  counter-terrorism and irregular warfare, deterring and defeating aggression, projecting power, countering weapons of mass destruction, maintaining nuclear deterrence.  It also re-emphasizes some relatively new areas:  outer space and cyber space as well as support to homeland defense.  Its implications in many of these areas are unclear, maybe even still undetermined.  Certainly who watch the Defense budget more than I do aren’t sure yet.

But it includes a clear and unequivocal step back from stability operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan (and before in Bosnia and Kosovo), the design and implementation of which preoccupied me for at least 15 years. This is the President’s guidance on stability and counterinsurgency operations:

In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless
be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required,operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.

In another section of the document, the guidance also suggests that U.S. forces will be: to secure territory and populations and facilitate a
transition to stable governance on a small scale for a limited period using standing
forces and, if necessary, for an extended period with mobilized forces.

Surprise:  I find all of this eminently reasonable, provided the civilian and reserve capacities are built up in a serious way.  It is a mistake to use active duty fighting forces in roles that might be carried out at least as effectively by civilians, whether government officials or contractors.  Our non-military means are however still lacking.  Despite Hillary Clinton’s well-intended Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, we are still far from having in the State Department and USAID the capabilities required.

This matters.  It was the lack of civilian capacity to deal with post-victory stability and governance in Afghanistan that allowed the Taliban to regroup and regenerate.  It was the lack of civilian capacity to deal with post-victory stability in Iraq that turned a quick victory into an eight-year nightmare.  If ever we need to deal with a post-war or post-revolution Iran or Pakistan (whether the war involves the U.S. as a belligerent or not), or even post-Assad Syria, we will clearly lack adequate civilian capacity, and the military’s reservists won’t suffice either.

So yes, let’s get the military out of the peacebuilding/statebuilding/nationbuilding/postconflict stabilization/reconstruction business as much as possible.  Let’s use reservists when possible, as we have for years in Kosovo and Bosnia.  As civilians in uniform, they have talents and experience that active duty forces often lack.  But let’s not forget that we might still have to do these things, despite the best intention of the Administration to avoid it.  If even 10 per cent of what the military saves in following the President’s strategic guidance were to be spent on civilian capacity, it might be enough.  But there is no sign of anything like that happening yet.

So yes, I am happy with the strategic guidance, but it has to be backed up with budgetary allocations to the civilian side of our foreign policy apparatus to make it practical.  Righting the balance requires not just words but money and people.



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