Even if Afghanistan is not ripe, negotiations should start

The Century Foundation’s report on Afghanistan:  Negotiating Peace, out today, is an eminently reasonable exploration of the issues for resolution and processes required for a broad political agreement that would end the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and lead to the withdrawal of NATO and U.S. forces.  The kind of agreement the report advocates is one that meets the stated American war objective:  “An accord must include a verifiable severing of Taliban ties with al Qaeda and guarantees that Afghanistan will never again shelter transnational terrorists, with possible UN Security Council measures to support counterterrorism capability during a transition period.”

The question is this:  is now the time?  Are the conditions “ripe” for negotiation?

Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas Pickering, co-chairs of the task force that wrote this report, argue that the answer is “yes” to both these questions.  Afghanistan, they say, is “settling in to stalemate.”

In the conflict management world, “ripeness” is associated with a “mutually hurting stalemate.”  But is this a mutually hurting stalemate?  Not I think in the description Brahimi and Pickering provide:

While some counsel holding back from negotiations until military momentum is clearly and decisively in their favor, we believe the best moment to start a political process toward reconciliation is now. For the government’s allies, the optimal window would seem to be before their capacities peak, not when force levels have commenced a downward trajectory. For the insurgency, the prospects for negotiating a share of national power are not likely to become appreciably brighter by waiting until 2014. On the contrary, the prospect that the Americans could find a way to reduce the size of their force deployment and yet maintain force lethality for years to come suggests that perhaps the only way they can get the Americans truly out is with a negotiated settlement. For the United States, a negotiating process allows it to shape the ultimate political outcomes with more confidence than by betting on a prolonged and inconclusive war.

The situation they are describing is not a stalemate. It is more like mutual anticipation of declining military power, something adversaries find it difficult to do (and which is unlikely to happen on both sides at the same time).  Only once the situation is hurting both sides, and waiting will not relieve the hurt on either side, does “ripeness” theory suggest that negotiations will be fruitful.  With General Petraeus vaunting progress and the Taliban expanding their operations, it is hard for me to see where the stalemate is.

I think the argument for negotiations at the moment in Afghanistan would be better made on other grounds, some of which are referred to in the Century Foundation report.  We need not wait for ripeness.  We often don’t:  witness Bosnia and Kosovo, for example.  The Dayton agreements and the end of the NATO/Yugoslavia war over Kosovo were not negotiated at a time of mutually hurting stalemate, but rather in moments of rapidly shifting military circumstances. Neither was a perfect agreement, and both have been difficult to implement, but the peace has held.

In Afghanistan, we think we know that there is no military solution and that there will have to be a political resolution.  We also know that continued fighting will kill lots of people, including a lot of innocent people.  While we are reasonably certain we can sustain the NATO effort until 2014, we are not certain that it can be sustained thereafter by the Afghans, even with ample U.S. assistance.  This provides the rationale for negotiations:  not a mutually hurting stalemate, but rather a desire to limit risks to human beings and to the sustainability of the Afghan state.

In other words, this may not be the best moment for negotiations, but it is the moment we find ourselves in as we begin to develop a real appetite for getting out of Afghanistan.  If there is even a small probability of successfully negotiating an early end to the war, that could easily justify the risks and expense involved.  The U.S. is today spending on the order of $8 billion per month in Afghanistan; it is hard to picture that negotiations will cost more than one-one thousandth of that number ($8 million per month).  Surely there is a one in a thousand chance of success.  Negotiating is worth the gamble.

At the very least, negotiations–which Brahimi and Pickering argue should be led by a third party, likely the UN–will teach us a good deal more about the enemy than we seem to know today.  Or negotiations may split off at least part of the insurgency and ease the military task. They could also settle some issues and not others, reducing the intensity of the conflict without eliminating it entirely.

In the end, the Century Foundation report may be remembered less for its advocacy of negotiations based on a mistaken assessment of “ripeness” and more for its analysis of regional interests, including but not limited to those of Pakistan and Iran.  More on that in a later post.

PS:  For a skeptical, on-the-ground perspective about prospects for negotiations, see Martine van Biljert’s piece.


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Anyone still interested in Macedonia?

Last time I headlined a blog post asking whether anyone out there was interested in Macedonia, I got a ton of visitors to www.peacefare.net, so I thought I would try again.  Here are my notes for a presentation I did yesterday.  I was asked to focus on cross-border linkages.  No fair asking what others said, or who else was there, or where this discussion was held:  it was done (in DC) under Chatham House rules.  Needless to say, these notes were not delivered verbatim, but they are true to what I said and represent my views:


March 21, 2011


1.      I was asked to explore the interconnections in the Balkans – including cross-border issues – from a Macedonia-focused perspective.

2.      I suppose being a talking head on the Balkans over the past 15 years does gives me some perspective on the issues.  Before that I was Mr. Federation in Bosnia as well as an office director in State Department Intelligence and Research in 1996-97, when we tracked Dayton implementation, the virtual collapse of Albania, the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Zajedno demonstrations.

3.      Let there be no doubt:  what happens in Kosovo does not stay in Kosovo, and what happens in Bosnia doesn’t stay in Bosnia.

4.      I imagine it is perfectly obvious to all of us that ethnic partition in either of Macedonia’s neighbors could be catastrophic for Macedonia.  Certainly the Macedonians understood this when they recognized Kosovo, hoping that its borders would not be changed, and proceeded successfully with the demarcation of their own border with the new state.

5.      Likewise, if Macedonia comes apart it will affect Kosovo and Bosnia.  That is not the issue today, but I can assure you it was the issue in 2000/2001, when a very calm and rational Prime Minister Georgievski called me in, making me promise that I would not bring the American Ambassador or Jim Pardew.

6.      He then told me he wanted to partition Macedonia and asked that I take that message back to Washington.

7.      I refused, telling him I did not work for the U.S. Government but knew perfectly well how unwelcome his proposal would be.

8.      The problem with partition is not only the idea of drawing a line, but the difficulty of deciding where to draw it.  This is especially true for Macedonia, where the largest Albanian city is Shkup.  Look at the difficulties that have arisen over a Church museum on the “wrong” side of the river.  Can you imagine what it would take to draw a new national border at the river?  The answer is clear:  war.  And that war would quickly spread to Kosovo and to Bosnia.

9.  So disintegration is subject to the domino theory in the Balkans.  What about integration?

10.  Certainly we know that integration works well for the organized crime networks, which have no difficulty cooperating across borders.

11.  I hasten to add that this is also true for the taxi drivers.  One day in 2000 or 2001, when my staff had failed in weeks of efforts to arrange ground transportation from Belgrade to Pristina, I called the concierge at the Hyatt.

12.  The next day Milenko, the doctor of taxi cab science, deposited me at Gate 3, Podujevo, and I was picked up by his “colleague” from Pristina.

13.  I have taxi-hiked all over the Balkans since.

14.  Once I got to Pristina, I quickly ran out of Serbian cell phone credits.  Psst, I whispered to the concierge in the hotel Baci.  Would it be possible to buy more here in Pristina.  Of course he said loudly, any of the guys on the street will sell you credits for your Serbian phone.

15.  So integration is possible in the Balkans, and basically healthy even if it involves gray market cell phone credits.

16.  The problem is that the official efforts at integration are always running behind the unofficial ones.

17.  Macedonia in particular has been slow to take advantage of what Europe is offering.

18.  There are reasons for this:  The big threat in the Balkans today is lack of progress: on the Macedonia name issue, on Bosnia’s constitutional reforms, on Pristina/Belgrade dialogue.  That last has begun to move, and I hope it will produce good results.

19.  These are long-standing irritants that are being allowed to remain unresolved and are blocking progress towards NATO and the EU. This is a mistake—Brussels and the Balkan capitals need to find a way of moving forward, even if only slowly. Washington should help, but it doesn’t want to play the primary mover role any longer.

20.  Macedonia has been a candidate country for EU membership since December 2005.  Its progress is at best slow:  the progress report in November 2010 has lots of “little progress,” “limited progress,” “modest progress.”

21.  It seems to me the way the government covers for this is to be belligerent:  towards the EU, the US and Greece.

22.  Let me say a final word on the name issue, because it is the main obstacle to more rapid integration of Macedonia into NATO and the EU.

23.  I testified years before the US recognized Macedonia by its constitutional name that it should do so, and I got then Senator Joe Biden wagging a finger “no” in my face for my trouble.

24.  I am entirely sympathetic to the Macedonian position in substance:  a country is entitled to call itself, its people and its language anything it wants.  If nothing else, the interim accord, which allows Macedonia to use the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, should apply.

25.  I hope they win their case at the International Court of Justice, which might at least get Macedonia into NATO, where it belongs.

26.  But I can’t help but suspect that Prime Minister Gruevski uses the name issue for political purposes, not only getting votes but also hiding lack of progress on EU reforms.

27.  The EU could be tougher with Macedonia—they give a lot of euros to Skopje every year.

28.  The name issue will presumably be settled in court, or not.

29.  But is it time to make the money more conditional on EU-required reforms?


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Implosions, more and less advanced

While the rest of the world catches up with the question of “how does Libya end,” which I dealt with yesterday, let’s take a look ahead.  Today’s big news was not the explosions in Libya, but rather the implosion in Yemen, where President Saleh is now facing an opposition strengthened by defections from his army, government, parliament and diplomatic corps.  He is appealing for “mediation” by the Saudis, which is being interpreted in some circles as a plea for Saudi guarantees if he agrees to step down in six months.  He had already agreed to step down at the end of his present term in 2013.

It very much looks as if Washington may lose its spear carrier in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  This is a problem, since no one–including Saleh–seems to think AQAP is a serious threat to Yemen, which it uses as haven and launching pad.  No one in his right mind would want to try to govern it.

Washington will have to convince whoever takes over–the betting seems to be on General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, but these things are inherently uncertain–that AQAP merits his attention.   This will be difficult:  Yemen is a place with a lot of problems.  Water and oil are running out, there are more or less perennial rebellions both north and south, the population is high half the day on qat, and the authority of the government barely extends to the outskirts of Sanaa, the capital.

In Syria, the process of popular protest is far less advanced, but firing on demonstrators by the security forces has reaped an increase in demonstrations in the south.  No telling whether the Syrians have the stomach to go all the way to revolution, and Bashar al Assad is a clever autocrat.  But he too is lacking resources and tied to Iran in ways that make it difficult for him to do what most Syrians want:  an opening to the West and foreign investment, which necessarily entails reducing ties to Iran and Hizbollah and settling up somehow with Israel.  Syria also has ethnic and sectarian issues:  Kurdish citizens treated as second class and a Sunni majority governed by an Alawhite (more or less Shia) but secular majority.

Bahrain, now under Gulf Cooperation Council protection, seems to be doing its best to turn its rebellion into sectarian strife, which is not how it began.  It is hard to believe that is in the interests of the (Sunni) Khalifa monarchy, which governs a less than prosperous Shia majority.  But when Saudi Arabia decides to embrace you, I guess you have to hug back.

It has already been an extraordinary few weeks in North Africa.  While the monarchies in Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia seem to be learning how to keep the lid on, the pot is boiling over in Yemen and may still do so in Syria and Bahrain.  It would be nice if the heat rose under the Iranian pot, but that does not appear to be happening, no matter how often the Secretary of State and the President wish it so.


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It should stop only with Gaddafi at the exit

While the rest of the world focuses on current military operations, I’d like to focus again on the critical, but not yet urgent, question of when the military effort against Gaddafi should stop.

As Neal Ascherson points out in The Guardian this morning, the problem in Libya is Gaddafi.  UN Security Council resolution 1973 does not recognize that.  It calls for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, and Hillary Clinton (among others) has been at pains to reiterate that regime change is not the objective.

This matters because it could determine when the military effort against Gaddafi comes to a halt.  Arab League Secretary General, and putative presidential candidate in Egypt, Amr Moussa is already trying to distance himself from the military effort due to alleged civilian casualties.  Pressures of this sort will build over the next several days, as Gaddafi is sure to make all sorts of claims about the damage the air attacks are doing.

Resolution 1973 provides precious little guidance on when to stop, beyond the overall purpose of protecting civilians.  Yesterday’s statement from the Paris meeting of those states that want to be counted as constituting or supporting the coalition of the willing provides more:

Muammar Gaddafi and those executing his orders must immediately end the acts of violence carried out against civilians, to withdraw from all areas they have entered by force, return to their compounds, and allow full humanitarian access.

If this is fully operative, it is hard to see how Gaddafi could survive in power, as “those executing his orders” certainly include not only the military under his command but also the internal security forces. If they were to withdraw “from all areas they have entered by force,” he would have no means of continuing to control most of Libya, as arguably this phrase could even apply to Tripoli but certainly applies to Zawiya in the west and the towns his forces have taken in the last ten days in the east as well.

In practice, the international community often compromises on issues of this sort, as it comes under enormous public pressure to stop a one-sided military campaign. The military “coalition of the willing” includes not only leaders France and the UK but also Canada, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Norway in addition to the United States.  The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, slow on the draw, are thought to be getting ready to contribute combat aircraft.  I can only imagine how strong the internal political pressures in several of these countries will be against continuing the military campaign a week from now.

If the campaign stops too early, with Gaddafi still in place and controlling a substantial part of the country, it will be difficult to implement the peace in a way that preserves Libya’s territorial integrity and gives it an opportunity to become a more normal state than it has been for more the four decades.  If the campaign stops too late, it will leave Libya in shambles.

At least as much wisdom is required to know when to stop as was required in deciding to start, but getting Gaddafi out should certainly be an important factor in the calculus.  I trust American diplomats are working as hard on that as they did on the remarkable Resolution 1973.

PS:  I expected pressures to build, but not as fast as this morning, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen said on Meet the Press:  Qaddafi staying in power is “certainly potentially one outcome,” adding the UN-approved airstrikes “are limited and it isn’t about seeing him go.”  I stick by what I said above:  he should be at the exit door before we stop.  We don’t need another half-baked result that burdens us for years to come.



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One big decision made, another coming

With kind permission of theatlantic.com, here is my piece they published this evening:

The Strikes on Libya: Humanitarian Intervention, Not Imperial Aggression

This has much more in common with the international response to Bosnia than it does with the war in Iraq


The destroyer USS Barry fires Tomahawk missile at Libya from Mediterranean Sea. By Reuters.

A coalition of the willing attacks an Arab country. French warplanes strike armored vehicles. American cruise missiles take down air defenses. It all sounds to some too much like Iraq redux. But it is not. The proper analogy is Srebrenica. This is the international community acting under international law to prevent mass murder.

The current military action against Libya is clearly authorized by the UN Security Council. Qaddafi has claimed it is illegal, but even China and Russia (who abstained from the UN vote) cannot doubt that Resolution 1973 authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians. Neither will Germany, Brazil, nor India (all of whom abstained). Angela Merkel has already said “We share the aims of this resolution. Don’t confuse abstention with neutrality.” The others may not like it, but if they had serious legal or political objections they could have voted against. Or maybe their interests in becoming permanent Security Council members overwhelmed their reserves. Either way, the resolution had all the votes it needed.

These strikes are not based on doubtful evidence. Qaddafi has said plainly what he intends to do to civilians who resist, even peacefully, and he has demonstrated repeatedly that he is prepared to carry out his threats. Even on the morning of the attacks, his armor entered Benghazi, in clear contradiction of his own Foreign Minister’s declaration that Tripoli would respect the cease-fire. Later Qaddafi’s spokesman disowned the foreign minister’s statement.

There is a solid coalition backing the military action, one that includes several Arab countries as well as the U.S., France and the United Kingdom. Even the Italians, who have historically close relations with Libya and even with Qaddafi personally, are on board. Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates were present for the meeting in Paris that launched implementation of the UN resolution, as was the Arab League. (Saudi Arabia was missing.) While Russia, China, India, and Brazil were absent, Germany was present.

The U.S., while it has claimed outsized credit for the diplomacy, is not visibly in the lead of the military action. UK and France have claimed that honor, with NATO as the operational forum. American contributions are likely to be substantial, in particular when it comes to cruise missiles, intelligence, command and control and other U.S. assets. But this is not an American operation with a coalition tacked on.

This leaves the question of purpose. Is this offensive, like the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an effort at regime change, with Qaddafi the ultimate target? Or is the objective, as Hillary Clinton claimed after the Paris meeting, only to protect civilians? For the moment, this is a distinction without a difference. Unless Qaddafi changes not just his tune but his behavior, he represents an imminent threat to civilians throughout Libya. It is up to him to convince the coalition that he is prepared to change his behavior, as he successfully did in 2003 when he gave up his nuclear weapons program.

But it seems Qaddafi won’t change: he appears as attached to the use of force against his people as Ratko Mladic was against thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia. Qaddafi rightly knows he can only stay in power if he can kill Libyans.

Srebrenica, not Iraq, is the right historical precedent for what is happening in Libya. In 1995 the West failed its declared intention to protect civilians in a Muslim-populated enclave in eastern Bosnia, declared a “safe area” by the UN. There weren’t enough Dutch peacekeepers in the area to defend the Muslims and, as a result, thousands of men and boys were massacred in cold blood.

Only a few weeks later NATO responded to Serb attack on another “safe area,” Sarajevo. NATO launched a bombing campaign that broke apart the Bosnian Serb Army and allowed Croat and Muslim Federation forces to advance on the Serb army. As the Serbs reeled from the air attack, they took hostages and used them as human shields. They also parked armored vehicles near mosques and schools. We should expect Qaddafi to do likewise.

When NATO stopped the war, the Muslim Federation had taken about 66 percent of Bosnian territory and might well have gotten to 80 percent within 10 days. At the Dayton Peace Accords, we rolled the federation forces back to 51 percent of the territory, because of a previous agreement between parties on how to bring peace to Bosnia. This decision to curb the federation made implementing peace the difficult task that it remains today, more than 15 years after the end of the conflict.

If history is a guide, then, the next big decision on Libya will be when to draw down the international military campaign. Does it stop when Qaddafi backs down, even if his forces still control a good part of Libya? That would be a hard peace to implement. Or do we wait a bit until his regime collapses and he flees or dies? This may be as important as the decision to launch the military strikes, as it will determine whether Libya remains a single state or suffers the kind of semi-dismemberment that still makes Bosnia, and Iraq, difficult places to govern.

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Actions now count more than words

While Tripoli’s Foreign Minister had initially announced acceptance of UN Security Council resolution 1973 and implementation of the ceasefire it called for, Colonel Gaddafi’s spokesman has rejected it:

Tripoli’s forces apparently continued to fight, entering Benghazi in tanks as well as activating “sleeper” cells in the still rebel-held city.

None of this should surprise:  Gaddafi’s penchant for duplicity is legendary.  What is disturbing is the lack of readiness on the part of those taking on the responsibility to enforce Resolution 1973 militarily.  President Obama set out explicit redlines in his speech yesterday that have already been crossed.  Militarily, it is much harder to do something about a tank in the streets of Benghazi than in the desert sands surrounding it. French and British planes are said to be beginning their efforts today–they need to make haste.

What should they do? We are past the point at which the no fly zone (NFZ) is an adequate response. Resolution 1973 authorizes all necessary means to protect civilians. I’ll leave it to the military planners–if they’ll work quickly–to decide what actions will have the biggest effects, but in addition to obvious targets like armored vehicles I would think taking out the supply convoys for Gaddafi’s force moving east would be both appropriate and effective. A tank doesn’t run long without fuel, and soldiers need water. And there shouldn’t be many civilians in a military supply convoy.

There is also the question of Tripoli’s command and control. So long as it is giving orders to attack civilians, it is a legitimate target. The responsibility to protect will mean little if Gaddafi continues to defy the Security Council. Taking out communications facilities can be amazingly effective–ask the Bosnian Serb Army, which turned and fled once its communications nodes were bombed by NATO in 1995. Even if Gaddafi is not there, it may be symbolically important to destroy his main bunker at Bab Al Aziziya. It might even be wise to give warning, if there is concern about collateral damage. Once Gaddafi is on the run, maintaining control of Tripoli is going to be very difficult for him. Saddam, remember, fell from power well before he was captured.

Of course none of this should take place without a parallel diplomatic effort to enforce the sanctions more vigorously and get Gaddafi out of Libya. The sooner he leaves, the better. Neither Libya nor those enforcing 1973 will benefit from extended military action.

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