When dealing, the sooner the better
by Fred E. Foldvary
The U.S. government should negotiate a ceasefire and end to the war in Afghanistan. If such negotiations have occurred, they have not been publicized. It would take political courage to openly talk to the Taliban, but militarily there is little to lose by just talking.
International negotiations got a bad reputation when the United Kingdom capitulated to the demands of Nazi Germany just prior to World War II. But negotiation does not imply surrender, nor does it condone what the enemy is doing. Negotiation means finding a compromise that provides each side with its minimum desires. A refusal to negotiate implies that at least one party seeks maximalism, the strategy of getting either all or nothing. For example, the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that each side is maximalist.
There is an economic principle in successful negotiation. When two parties A and B seek to have X and Y, often party A can give party B the goal X that has a low value to A but high value to B, while B gives A the goal Y of low value to B and high value to A. Thus there is a mutual gain from the trade, and it becomes a positive-sum game.
The main aim of the U.S. is to avoid being attacked again by Al Qaeda. The Taliban seeks complete rule over Afghanistan. It may also seek to be allied with Al Qaeda and share its violent goals, but that could be secondary. The U.S. could make a deal such that the Taliban denies Al Qaeda a place in Afghanistan in exchange to being recognized as a power in the country.
The Obama administration is now planning a surge in military power in Afghanistan similar to the previous surge in Iraq. The Iraq surge in troops combined with a changed strategy was successful in preventing Al Qaeda and its allies from toppling the U.S.-backed government.
Obama said that U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan in 2011, but that is not really credible. It assumes the surge will succeed, but very likely, it will fail. The reason the U.S. and its allies will lose the war in Afghanistan is because of corruption and the absence of a genuine democracy. The U.S. should seek a restructuring of governance in Afghanistan, a shift from a central government to decentralized bottom-up governance. The U.S. should also pay the Afghan farmers to grow crops other than opium.
The corruption in Afghanistan is so bad that U.S. contractors are paying protection money to the Taliban. U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the Taliban, paying for both sides of the war. Without comprehensive political reform, the U.S. cannot achieve its maximal goal of the elimination of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If the U.S. government seeks a military victory in Afghanistan, an additional 30,000 troops will not be sufficient. If Al Qaeda really is the main threat to the U.S., is it not foolish to keep troops in Japan and Germany? Transfer these troops to Afghanistan. President Obama should give U.S. taxpayers a good reason to keep armed forces in Japan and Germany so long after the cold war has finished.
It would be a tragedy for the Afghan people, especially the women, if the Taliban were to take full control of the country. But a negotiated peace need not be a complete surrender. Many of the Taliban chiefs may be content to have local control. There could be negotiations with the regional Taliban chiefs and peace agreements for some areas, leaving U.S. troops to defend a smaller territory.
The government chiefs in Pakistan want the U.S. to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban. The U.S. surge will send more of the Taliban into Pakistan. If the surge does end up reducing the Taliban presence in Afghanistan, they will just return after 2011 when U.S. troops leave.
President Obama did seek dialog with some of the less extreme Taliban in the spring of 2009. The big Taliban chiefs responded that they would only accept the total withdrawal of the U.S. The Taliban may reject the offer to talk. But that would strengthen the U.S. position, as that would put the blame for the war on the Taliban side. Moreover, the Taliban is not as monolithic as the Taliban chiefs claim.
In the U.S., there are two political factions, one calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and other calling for a greater military force. There seems to be few voices calling for negotiation. Journalists, the public, and members of Congress should be loudly advocating negotiations to end the war. Where is your voice?
This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.