Obama’s Troop Withdrawal Timeline and Taliban Reconciliation Moves Cause Unease
Whatever the outcome of McChrystal’s summons to Washington, the question of Obama’s Afghanistan policy increasingly is troubling experts in the U.S. and in the war zone, ahead of next month’s international conference in Kabul.
Provoking further unease is some quarters, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is pressing ahead with his plan to seek reconciliation with “moderate” Taliban elements.
In line with recommendations arising from the recent peace “jirga,” Karzai asked a visiting delegation of U.N. Security Council delegates Tuesday to remove Taliban members from a U.N. blacklist. A statement from his office said the delegation had “agreed to do so gradually and provided the members had no links to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.”
The blacklist derives from a pre-9/11 Security Council resolution targeting the Taliban and its al-Qaeda ally by freezing assets and restricting travel. It currently names 137 individuals associated with the Taliban and another 257 linked to al-Qaeda. Karzai has suggested that even Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar be removed from the list.
In a further step stemming from Karzai’s “reconciliation and reintegration” policy and arising from “jirga” recommendations, Afghan legal officials announced the release from prison of 26 Taliban detainees.
Karzai has ordered a review of all security detainees – there reportedly are some 15,000 in Afghan jails – saying that where evidence against them is deemed to be suspect, they should be freed.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley reaffirmed Tuesday that the administration backed an Afghan-led policy of determining “whether there are leaders of various insurgent groups that are willing to come forward and participate in the daily affairs of Afghanistan.”
He reiterated the criteria for engagement, including support for the Afghan constitution, renunciation of violence, “and having nothing to do with al-Qaeda.”
Karzai’s outreach, coupled with Obama’s Afghanistan timeline, has set off alarm bells in India, boosting concerns arising from Afghanistan’s long history of conflict, the spillover of instability and terrorism into the wider region, and deep suspicions of rival Pakistan.
Times of India foreign editor Chidanand Rajghatta opined Wednesday that many allies “have begun to express doubts about the U.S. purpose and resolve in Afghanistan.”
“There is talk once again of ‘good Taliban’ and bad Taliban and efforts to draw the former into the power structure in Kabul, a move engendered by the growing belief that the U.S is not going to win the war in Afghanistan,” he said.
At West Point last December, when Obama announced that 30,000 additional troops would be deployed to Afghanistan this year, he said the move would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”
In an article for the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Yash Malhotra, a retired Indian Army general, said that announcement had “signaled that the U.S. and its NATO allies no longer believed in the possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and were looking for a dignified exit.”
A delegation of senior Indian lawmakers, visiting Washington in recent days, told U.S. officials and lawmakers that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011 without defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda would result in a new era of terror across the region, Indian media reported Tuesday.
The delegation met briefly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and held discussions with officials led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.
“The United States is in the process of committing a historical blunder with grave consequences for not only Afghanistan but also the regions surrounding it,” warned Maharajakrishna Rasgotra, a former Indian foreign secretary.
While Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing troops from July 2011 was understandable, he said in a recent analysis, “the manner of the planned exit and its consequences that cause worry.”
Rasgotra, who is president of the Observer Research Foundation Centre for International Relations in New Delhi, decried the Afghanistan ““reconciliation and reintegration” policy.
“The consequences of this dangerous scheme are not hard to foresee: the return of the brutal Taliban rule in Kabul, the resumption of a civil war which will suck in the neighboring countries; and spread of terrorism and bloodshed farther afield.”
‘Weakening Afghan resolve’
In Washington, the Heritage Foundation called Tuesday for Obama to scrap the “artificial” troop withdrawal timeline, saying it has provoked many friends and foes to question America’s resolve in Afghanistan.
“By highlighting that the U.S. will begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, President Obama signals to Afghans and others that the U.S. is not truly committed to prevailing over the Taliban,” said Heritage fellow James Carafano.
“This weakens Afghan resolve to resist the Taliban now for fear they will be back in power in the near future. It also reinforces Pakistan’s inclination to hedge on its support for the Afghan Taliban leadership based on its territory.”
Heritage President Ed Feulner in a statement urged the president to drop the timeline, make it clear his top priority was to win the war, and give U.S. military leaders whatever forces or resources they need to achieve that goal.
“Together with Afghan forces and NATO, the United States must weaken the Taliban on the battlefield before engaging in serious negotiations with Taliban members who break ties with al-Qaeda,” he said. “And the president must press Pakistan to deal firmly and unambiguously with all terrorists.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus stressed that July 2011 was “the date when a process begins, based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits.”
He said “rigorous assessments” would be made throughout the year, to establish what progress was being achieved and where adjustments were needed.
“I will provide my best military advice to the secretary and to the president on how I believe we should proceed based on the conditions at that time, and I will then support the president’s decision,” he said.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said he was troubled about signals being sent to allies and enemies alike.
“I continue to worry a great deal bout the message we are sending in the region, about whether we’re actually going to stay or not, and whether we are going to do what’s necessary to succeed, rather than set an arbitrary timeline,” he said.