John Arquilla / San Francisco Chronicle – 2009-06-02 22:24:13
SAN FRANCISCO (June 2, 2009) — While the fruitless, unseemly debate about the possible value of the U.S. government having tortured terrorists drags on, the notion of talking to terrorists has been all but forgotten. This despite the fact that torture obviously hasn’t worked – if it did, the war on terrorism would be over by now – but talking almost always has.
Now is the time to put American misdeeds firmly behind us and focus on what works: reaching out to the essential humanity in even our bitterest foes. Much as Sunni tribes signed up to work with us in bringing stability to Iraq, Afghanistan’s Pashtuns can be similarly induced to break away from extremists in the Taliban. This is the true path to a secure peace, as negotiations can lead to taking one slice after another out of an insurgency made up of many tribes who harbor hostility toward the terrorists.
If, instead, the United States continues to rely on Predator strikes and bigger troop numbers, resistance will likely grow – and Pakistan will stagger closer to the precipice of social revolution, enhancing rather than undermining the haven the terrorists enjoy in the remote tribal zone on the border with Afghanistan.
It is ironic that President Obama, who campaigned on the concept of talking to our enemies, has ratcheted up the drone attacks on sovereign Pakistani territory. He is also doing far too little to rein in the abuses of a Shiite-dominated Baghdad government whose recent actions – a string of detentions and, allegedly, some killings – threaten to undermine our deal with the Sunni insurgents who have “flipped” and reignite a civil war as U.S. troops leave Iraq.
The sense of irony deepens when one recalls that it was President George W. Bush who approved the negotiations strategy in Iraq during his second term, allowing the Awakening movement to take hold. Bush also remained very skeptical about the idea of conducting an aerial bombing campaign inside Pakistan, withholding his approval for increased attacks until December 2007.
Those who would dismiss the notion of negotiating with Afghan tribal leaders in the hope of peeling them away from the Taliban and al Qaeda will point to the failure of the recent deal the Pakistanis made regarding the Swat Valley. The Talibs agreed to put down their weapons in return for the government acceding to the imposition of the sharia law that the militants prefer. While a kind of peace was kept in Swat, aggressive acts occurred elsewhere.
Now the Pakistani army is on the march, and some 1.5 million innocents are fleeing the battle zone, bunching in camps where disease is likely to flourish amid terrible privations. Critics will point to this and make it Exhibit A in the case against negotiating with terrorists.
But the Pakistani case is problematic, as unrest in that nation is partly due to the public’s deep resentment of the American bombing campaign in their country. Further, there are civil-military tensions that grow out of the American policy of hurrying to democratize a country whose history and culture suggest that the first order of business there should be to provide security. Thus, Pakistan cannot by itself be used as an example to undermine the idea of talking with terrorists as part of our approach to bringing peace to Afghanistan.
So, when it comes to talking with terrorists, there are two principal areas of engagement that President Obama should consider: The first is Iraq, where the deal with the Sunnis threatens to unravel violently when American troops leave their network of small urban outposts at the end of June. Obama needs to reaffirm American support for friendly Sunnis, and make clear to the Shiite community that any terrorist acts they perpetrate will not be tolerated. Further, he should seek an amendment to the status of forces agreement allowing our soldiers to stay in the outposts until the end of 2011 – when all U.S. combat forces are slated to depart, leaving only a small residual force dedicated to training Iraqis and mopping up any al Qaeda cells that remain.
The second opportunity is in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military should be encouraged to cut deals with local tribal leaders based on the idea that they will switch sides to join our cause in return for our granting them some degree of local control. This requires us to be willing to live with something less than a powerful central government in Kabul. Given the inefficiency and alleged corruption of the Hamid Karzai regime, this seems a small concession.
If the president takes a moment to remember some of his own campaign rhetoric about how the nation must never negotiate out of fear, but also never fear to negotiate, he’ll find that he has a chance to bring down the level of violence in Afghanistan, to keep it down in Iraq, and to prevent a social revolution in Pakistan.
For a leader best described as “cool,” there is nothing cooler than this.
John Arquilla teaches in the special operations program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. He first called for talking to terrorists five years ago in an opinion piece in The Chronicle.
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