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Could a 'Great Negotiation' End the War in Afghanistan?

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A commonly proffered argument against negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan has been: "why should the Afghan Taliban negotiate, when they think they are winning?" For many months, this argument was offered by administration officials to explain why they would not yet pursue serious negotiations with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban.

More recently, administration officials are saying that they have moved significantly. Newsweek reports:

Washington is eager to make [peace negotiations with high-ranking insurgents] happen -- perhaps more eager than most Americans realize. "There was a major policy shift that went completely unreported in the last three months," a senior administration official tells Newsweek..."We're going to support Afghan-led reconciliation [with the Taliban]." U.S. officials have quietly dropped the Bush administration's resistance to talks with senior Taliban and are doing whatever they can to help Karzai open talks with the insurgents, although they still say any Taliban willing to negotiate must renounce violence, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution. (Some observers predict that those preconditions may eventually be fudged into goals.)

The administration's shift -- if real -- is tremendously good news for ending the war. But even if this accurately reflects the intentions of the administration, the arguments made earlier against serious negotiations are still politically powerful, in part because the administration made them, and will likely be thrown back in the administration's face by some of its Republican critics if efforts at a negotiated settlement begin to bear fruit. Therefore, these arguments still need to be countered, even if the administration is no longer making them.

To the claim that the Afghan Taliban has no reason to negotiate because they believe they are winning, there are several straightforward answers: 1) not every negotiation that ends a war follows a military defeat by one side over the other; 2) politicians close to the Afghan Taliban have been saying for months that a political settlement is possible if the U.S. is seriously interested; 3) waiting to open negotiations until some hoped-for military position is achieved is likely to lead nowhere: as one Western diplomat told Newsweek, "Waiting for the perfect security situation is like having a baby ... There's never a right time"; and 4) the primary responsibility of Americans, if we want to end the war, is to ensure that our government is doing all it can to bring about a negotiated end to the war, not to handicap the stance towards negotiations of other actors.

Regarding the first point -- not every negotiation that ends a war follows a military defeat -- a key obstacle to moving the debate forward in the U.S. is that most Americans don't know much diplomatic history. We learn in school that American and French forces won a decisive military victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781 that essentially ended the war -- but how did it come to be that half of the forces assembled against the British at Yorktown were French? That's part of the diplomatic history that we don't spend much time studying in school.

This ignorance makes us vulnerable to facile slogans that assume the all-conquering efficacy of military force and dismiss the possible efficacy of alternatives. For the neocons in both parties, all you need to need to know about the diplomatic history of the world since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden is that diplomatic efforts to avert the Second World War failed in Munich in 1938. For the neocons, every argument is a noun, a verb, and Neville Chamberlain.

But Fredrik Stanton has recently published a corrective to our ignorance. "Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World" has eight chapters, each devoted to a negotiation: Benjamin Franklin's successful efforts to persuade France to fully support the American Revolutionary War against Britain; James Monroe's negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; the 1814 Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon; the Portsmouth Treaty brokered by Theodore Roosevelt to end the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, for which Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize; the Paris Peace Conference following the first world war, which with its spectacularly unrealistic demands on Germany, sowed the seeds for the second; the UN/US-brokered Egyptian-Israeli Armistice of 1949, for which American Ralph Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in which President Kennedy's non-maximalist brinksmanship nearly caused but ultimately averted nuclear war; and the Reykjavik Summit of 1986, which failed to produce an agreement at the time but ultimately resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.

In each of these negotiations, with the exception of the Congress of Vienna, the U.S. was a key protagonist.

Among these episodes, the Portsmouth Treaty speaks most directly to our present predicament in Afghanistan, insofar as the Portsmouth Treaty most clearly ended a war without one side having defeated the other militarily.

Between the February 1904 Japanese attack on Russian forces in Manchuria and early 1905, the Russo-Japanese war had cost more than 150,000 lives, Stanton reports. President Roosevelt believed that continued fighting would make both sides worse off, but until mid-1905, neither side shared his view, each thinking they would benefit from continued fighting. In May 1905, Japan and Russia agreed to Roosevelt's proposal for negotiations.

Why did they agree to negotiate, when neither had been defeated? Each side knew they had something to lose from continued fighting, and that a negotiated settlement might not be very different from what they could accomplish through force. The bloodshed had turned world opinion sharply against the war, and this had begun to affect the ability of Russia and Japan to raise money for the war.

Yet when the negotiations began, there was no cease-fire, and it was far from obvious that the negotiations would succeed. Both sides had difficulty finding delegates, because insiders believed that the negotiations would fail and that the negotiating officials would be ruined politically. The chief Russian delegate to the peace conference, an opponent of the war, didn't believe that Russian leaders sincerely wanted to end it.

If some folks in the White House fear they might pay a political price for an agreement ending the war that doesn't "smell like a win" but will "end in an argument" -- as Gen. McChrystal's chief of operations told us we should expect in any event, no matter what the U.S. military does in Afghanistan -- they have nothing to fear compared to Japan's delegation to Portsmouth in 1905:

Komura [the chief Japanese delegate] faced his own pressures. A visiting member of the Japanese Parliament told reporters in Portsmouth that "public sentiment was such in Japan ... that Baron Komura would be murdered upon his return home if he yielded."

But in fact Komura did make concessions to secure an agreement, and although the concessions were wildly unpopular in Japan -- the Japanese public had been led to believe, for example, that war reparations from Russia were in the offing -- he lived to tell the tale, and his career does not seem to have suffered, as he continued to serve as a Japanese diplomat for several more years, receiving promotions and honors, and signing agreements with other countries on behalf of Japan.

If Richard Holbrooke succeeded in making a deal with the Afghan Taliban, one suspects that most Americans who were paying any attention would be grateful. The majority of Americans, the Washington Post reported in June, say the war is not worth fighting -- a far cry from the war fever of Japanese public opinion during the Portsmouth talks.

But America still has something in common with the Japanese public of 1905: Many Americans -- particularly some influential Americans in Washington -- have unrealistic goals in Afghanistan. If you can get people to have unrealistic goals, it's easy to argue against a diplomatic settlement. A negotiated solution won't be all unicorns and ponies! But further military combat won't result in unicorns and ponies either. To declare that one won't support a diplomatic settlement because it won't achieve a goal that is very unlikely to be achieved by military force is something akin to believing that you are not overweight because you haven't been on a scale lately.

Whatever one thinks of former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill's proposal for a "de facto partition" of Afghanistan, Blackwill deserves credit for trying to make a suggestion consistent with an assessment of U.S. prospects that isn't afflicted by denial:

With an occupying army largely ignorant of local history, tribal structures, language, customs, politics and values, the United States cannot, through social engineering, win over, in the foreseeable future, sufficient numbers of the Afghan Pashtun on whom [a successful application of counterinsurgency theory] depends.

Negotiations aren't a magic wand. They aren't going to magically transform an existing balance of forces into something completely different. But military force can't do that either. Any "cup of poison" you have to drink at the diplomatic table, as Ayatollah Khomeini described the UN-mediated truce between Iran and Iraq in 1988 that ended the Iran-Iraq War, is almost certainly a "cup of poison" you would otherwise eventually would have had to drink on the battlefield, with greater loss of life.

Not surprisingly, a persistent theme in Stanton's book is the need to have realistic assessments of the interests and capabilities of one's adversaries and interlocutors. In lobbying the kingdom of France to take America's side against Britain, Franklin did not appeal to the Rights of Man; Franklin appealed to France's evident self-interest in weakening the British Empire. As the French Foreign Minister wrote at the time to France's Ambassador to Spain: "What ought to lead France to join with America is the great enfeeblement of England to be effected by the subtraction of a third of her Empire."

In negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson and Monroe knew that Napoleon needed money for expected war in Europe and suspected that a deal would be in France's interest insofar as it could put Louisiana permanently beyond the reach of the British. But France knew that Jefferson was under extreme pressure to resolve the problem of New Orleans. France had ordered authorities in New Orleans to block American goods from passing down the Mississippi, bringing half of America's trade to a halt. Residents of western states called for war and threatened secession if Washington failed to act. A Senate resolution demanding an immediate U.S. attack on New Orleans failed narrowly.

Then as now, there were influential people who were extremely skeptical about the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

Alexander Hamilton wrote:

There is not the most remote possibility that the ambitious and aggrandizing views of Bonaparte will commute the territory for money. Its acquisition is of immense importance to France, and has long been an object of her extreme solicitude. The attempt therefore to purchase, in the first instance, will certainly fail, and in the end, war must be resorted to, under all the accumulation of difficulties caused by a previously and strongly fortified possession of the country by our adversary."

But Hamilton was far from the only influential American who was pessimistic about the possibility of a diplomatic solution. On the day the treaty was signed in Paris transferring Louisiana to the United States -- the state of trans-Atlantic communication was such that it could take three months to send an urgent message and receive a reply -- President Jefferson wrote, "I am not sanguine in obtaining a cession of New Orleans for money." But despite his pessimism, Jefferson pressed for a diplomatic solution, because he believed the alternative was a war with France for New Orleans that would take seven years and cost more than a hundred thousand lives.

The image that many Americans today have of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- if they have any image at all -- is likely that of Secretary of State Dean Rusk's statement when the Soviets appeared to stand back from following through on a threat to run the U.S. blockade of Cuba: "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."

But, as Stanton recounts, while publicly President Kennedy struck the pose of standing firm, in his private diplomacy with Premier Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, Kennedy was determined to create and maintain a realistic path for the Soviet Union to stand down from the confrontation without "defeat" or humiliation.

Robert Kennedy later wrote: "Every opportunity was to be given to the Russians to finds a peaceful settlement which would not diminish their national security or be a public humiliation."

To avoid war, in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy was ready to agree to a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba -- a commitment that all subsequent U.S. presidents honored - and to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Stanton recounts:

[President Kennedy] had recently read Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August, which catalogued the errors that led to the start of World War I, and the risk of catastrophe from one side misinterpreting the other's signals haunted him. "We were not going to misjudge," Kennedy said, "or precipitously push our adversaries into a course of action that was not intended or anticipated."

When the Soviet ship Bucharest neared the U.S. quarantine line on October 25, 1962, President Kennedy decided to let the ship pass.

"We don't want to push him to a precipitous action - give him time to consider," the president said of Khrushchev. "I don't want to put him in a corner from which he cannot escape."

When Khrushchev accepted Kennedy's offer to promise not to invade Cuba and to quietly remove U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, President Kennedy followed through on his anti-humiliation policy:

President Kennedy carefully avoided turning the outcome into a public humiliation for the Soviet Union. "He instructed all members of the ExComm [the Executive Committee of the National Security Council] and government," his brother [Robert] wrote, "that no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any kind of victory."

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was often compared to President Kennedy. If President Obama now emulates President Kennedy in engaging the leadership of the Afghan Taliban as President Kennedy engaged Premier Khrushchev, creating and maintaining a plausible path for them to stand down from their confrontation with the U.S. -- one which would not diminish their security or be a public humiliation -- then President Obama will deserve the comparison; in the words of Thomas Paine, he will deserve "the love and thanks of man and woman."