How About a Spring Peace Offensive in Afghanistan?

Peace is in the air and its blowing around like little specks of Spring pollen. Maybe it’s a good time for the US government to recognize this hopeful spirit of Spring and try to figure out a new tack in its foreign war policy.

US war policy is still very much bogged down in the paranoid, preemptive strike mentality of the Bush years. We have moved on only in the sense our very sophisticated military is now less concerned about holding large areas and much more focused on the precise task of finding and killing insurgent leaders. Lop off their heads.

At the same time, using its two most powerful tools vis-à-vis the American public – secrecy and public relations – our military is involved in a concerted campaign of face-saving, lest anyone think our forces are in a condition of moral quagmire or military stalemate. Which they are.

Consider the story in The New York Times about Mohammed Massoom Stanekzai, an official of the Hamid Karzai government of Afghanistan, specifically secretary of something called the High Peace Council. Stanekzai reveals that, as part of his office focused on “peace,” he and other Afghan officials are in regular contact with the Taliban insurgency.

Cartoon by Makhmud Eshonkulov of UzbekistanCartoon by Makhmud Eshonkulov of Uzbekistan

This is really interesting news. The backward nation of Afghanistan actually has a Department Of Peace. Of course, antiwar Congressman Dennis Kucinich has lobbied for a Department Of Peace in the United States for years. It’s in his bill H.R. 808.

“We talk all the time,” Stanekzai said. “We’ve sent representatives to their side and they’ve sent representatives to our side.” The exchanges are now “a step beyond” just talk of setting up future talks, Stanekzai said, suggesting that they were beginning to get into substantial issues.

The reason for the Times story was the announcement that the US is giving $50 million to help out the Afghan High Peace Council. Maybe it’s cynical, but experience makes one wonder whether the $50 million is intended to really facilitate the struggle for peace with the Taliban insurgency or whether it’s a bribe to keep the US in the driver’s seat and, thus, intended as a monkey wrench in the works to prevent any kind of real peace.

Members of the Taliban insurgency deny they are speaking with the Karzai government about anything. As the Taliban has consistently demanded, they say they will not formally talk to anyone until there is a complete withdrawal of foreign forces, that is, the US military. Meanwhile, the US military says it’s ready to discuss not shooting at Taliban diplomats as they travel to and from talks.

This, of course, is Exhibit Number One of the problem. The Taliban want the foreigners out, and the foreigners want to tell them when and where they can meet to talk without being blown up by F16s or drones. As the Strother Martin character says in Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Minority ethnic groups have expressed concern that President Karzai, a Pashtun, seems inclined to cut a deal with the Taliban, who are also Pashtuns, in a nation where the Pashtun ethnic group is the largest and spreads well across the border with Pakistan.

There are suggestions that some kind of serious peace talks might be set up in Turkey, which is probably the ideal place, given it’s an independent nation with a moderate Muslim government and good connections to the west.

All this is going on in the midst of the so-called “Arab Spring,” a wide-spread re-shuffling of political and repressive forces throughout the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North Africa. Due to its history in the regions, the United States is an intricate party in this epic struggle.

At the same time, the Obama Administration is about to change its top war policy leadership. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is leaving. Who will replace him is a very big question. Will President Obama continue to keep the momentum of the Bush war policies going or will he, finally, make some kind of break and appoint a leader with some grasp of negotiated peace as a real option for national foreign policy?

He’s also going to replace Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs. Again, is it remotely possible the replacement might be someone willing and able to call a spade a spade and walk the Pentagon back from its current commitment to saving face over negotiating some kind of practical peace.

Talk of moving Leon Panetta to Defense and the counter-insurgency genius in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, to the CIA only suggests more of the same. So maybe those of us in the peace movement shouldn’t hold our breath.

Cartoon by Makhmud Eshonkulov of UzbekistanCartoon by Makhmud Eshonkulov of Uzbekistan

As American citizens watch the profound upheavals of the Arab Spring, it should be clear change is in the air. Leaders like President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are saying we can no longer have “business as usual” in places like Egypt and Libya. Given we have been so historically instrumental in so many of these now bankrupt foreign governments and their policies, it seems to make sense for the United States to make itself the same pledge. No more business as usual; it’s a great time to do some re-assessing.

In Afghanistan, we could concede the point to the Taliban and admit the obvious about our military occupation, then use our exit as a negotiating tool to facilitate a workable Taliban participation in the Afghan government. In the end, it’s their country.

While recent history has given ample reason to doubt it, maybe that kind of negotiation is going on right now behind the scenes. If so, great. If not, it’s time to listen to the polls that say the American people are fed up with the war in Afghanistan.

Spring is here, and it’s a perfect time for a Spring Peace Offensive. Since we don’t have a Department Of Peace, there’s no reason not to act as if we did. The pollen is out there floating in the air. It’s a shame to keep a bloody conflagration going just to save a little face.

It’s time to seriously figure out how to leave Afghanistan.