Friday, 10 December 2010

To the President of the United States: An Open Letter on Afghanistan

Mr. President,
We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.

Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population. Foreign forces have by now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Red Army.
Politically, the settlement resulting from the 2001 intervention is unsustainable because the constituencies of whom the Taliban are the most violent expression are not represented, and because the highly centralized constitution goes against the grain of Afghan tradition, for example in specifying national elections in fourteen of the next twenty years.
The operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and in Helmand provinces are not going well. What was supposed to be a population-centred strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property. Night raids have become the main weapon to eliminate suspected Taliban, but much of the Afghan population sees these methods as illegitimate. Due to the violence of the military operations, we are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside, with a direct effect on the sustainability of the war. These measures, beyond their debatable military results, foster grievance. With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. Drone strikes in Pakistan have a marginal effect on the insurgency but are destabilizing Pakistan. The losses of the insurgency are compensated by new recruits who are often more radical than their predecessors.
The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure. Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement.
The 2014 deadline to put the Afghan National Army in command of security is not realistic. Considering the quick disappearance of the state structure at a district level, it is difficult to envision a strong army standing alone without any other state institutions around. Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think -- a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more -- are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.
The current contacts between the Karzai government and the Taliban are not enough. The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account. In addition, from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year. This is why we ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. A ceasefire and the return of the insurgency leadership in Afghanistan could be part of a de-escalation process leading to a coalition government. Without any chance for a military victory, the current policy will put the United States in a very difficult position.
For a process of political negotiation to have a chance of addressing the significant core grievances and political inequalities it must occur on multiple levels – among the countries that neighbour Afghanistan as well as down to the provincial and sub-district. These various tables around which negotiations need to be held are important to reinforce the message -- and the reality -- that discussions about Afghanistan’s political future must include all parties and not just be a quick-fix deal with members of the insurgency.
We believe that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan, enables the Taliban to become a responsible actor in the Afghan political order, ensures that Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for international terrorism, protects the Afghan people’s hard-won freedoms, helps stabilize the region, renders the large scale presence of international troops in Afghanistan unnecessary and provides the basis of an enduring relationship between Afghanistan and the international community. All the political and diplomatic ingenuity that the United States can muster will be required to achieve this positive outcome. It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests.

Matthieu Aikins

Scott Atran
Anthropologist (University of Michigan) and author of Talking to the Enemy

Rupert Talbot Chetwynd
Author of Yesterday’s Enemy - Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Robert Abdul Hayy Darr
Author of The Spy of the Heart and humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Gilles Dorronsoro
Visiting Scholar (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and author of Revolution Unending

David B. Edwards
Anthropologist (Williams College) and author of Before Taliban

Jason Elliot
Author of An Unexpected Light

Antonio Giustozzi
Author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop and editor of Decoding the New Taliban

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi
Associate Professor, James Madison University

Daniel Korski
Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

Felix Kuehn
Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban

Minna Jarvenpaa
Former Head of Analysis and Policy Planning, UNAMA

Anatol Lieven
Professor, War Studies Department of King’s College London and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country

Bob McKerrow
Author of Mountains of our Minds – Afghanistan

Alessandro Monsutti
Research Director, Transnational Studies/Development Studies at The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Ahmed Rashid
Journalist and author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos

Nir Rosen
Fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security

Gerard Russell
Research Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University

Alex Strick van Linschoten
Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban

Astri Surkhe
Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

Yama Torabi
Co-Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan

Jere van Dyk
Author of In Afghanistan and Captive

Matt Waldman
Afghanistan Analyst

Alex Strick van Linschoten
UK Mobile --- +44-7794-263019
Afghan mobile --- +93-799-667356
USA Mobile --- +1-646-338-1275

skype: strickvl


Gollum said...

Not sure that I buy into the mediation part in the final paragraph. It is very difficult to mediate anything without a mediator capable of bringing the parties towards a mutually acceptable compromise. Not sure that any such mediator exists. Certainly, it cannot be the US as it has no moral legitimacy in the Middle East.

The Taliban have very powerful backers and will not (and probably ought not) enter into any attempted mediation at the moment as they have the upper hand and within 3 to 5 years will be back in political control of Afghanistan in much the same way as the North Vietnamese succeeded in the Vietnam war. All we need now is a candidate for the US presidency in 2012 running on a "peace with honour" ticket and we will have come full circle.

This is just history repeating itself. Outsiders cannot win a war in Afghanistan. They don't have the staying power and the Afghanis are a proud, uncompromising people. Every intervention will end in retreat. End of story really.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Gollum

How right you are when you say " it is just history repeating itself and "outsiders cannot win a war in Afghanistan."

I was there when the Talibans were formed as a loose group, and for the first time in decades, people could travel safely from Ghazni to Kndahar. They were very popular, almost universally in the country, as they brought safety and security. Alas, the extremeists within the group took the power and made the draconion policies.

Mediation is possible in Afghanistan and we have the likes of Martti Ahtisaari who brokered that difficult peace in Aceh, after 25 years of bloody conflict.
And Margaretta Wahlstrom ex UN in Afghanistan in 2003. The trouble is, they often pick the wrong people without the delicate skills of mediation.

Afghanistan can, and will sort otself out, but everytime there is foreign intervention, we just delay the inevitable further, leaving the country more fracured, and often the best leaders killed or murdered.

Anonymous said...

Have there been any responses yet from the whitehouse?

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

No response so far.

I hope it actually gets to his desk.

Marja said...

I am just a small soul and world politics is above me but I underwrite this statement and agree that mediation is far superior to war. I hope this letter will reach the right person.

Bob I wish you and yours a happy Christmas Arohanui

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Small souls or big souls, it is the group commitment to a cause that brings about change.

HJave a very Merry Charistmas and a Happy New Year.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Americans just do not grasp the importance of history, and its relevance to what is happening today around the world. One only has to look at Vietnam where the best and brightest policy makers and academics in America thought that war was actually about communism rather than simply Vietnamese nationalism and 60,000 Americans, and uncountable Vietnamese paid for that mistake with their lives. I would never either one of my boys to die in these places only to be comforted by a flag drapped coffin and shallow words they had died for "freedom".
The spectre of Sarah Palin being my nations leader fills me with dread and fear.
But you are right in your comment to Marja that change has to believed and committed to happening. Glad you are out there with these other fine people.
Off to the Ruahine this weekend for 5 days with my oldest boy, and in early Jan. Pohangina Pete and I are heading in as well. Looking forward to being in the mountains. Peaceful Yuletide to you and yours Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

That was a very powerfulcomment that came from the depth of your heart and soul. There is nothing I disagree with and you are right about the US mistaking communism nationalism in Vietnam where over a milliuon innocent civilians were killed in Vietnam, and neigbouring Laos, where B 52s dropped bombs if the weather was too bad in Vietnam. And, yes, somehow nations do not learn from history. The US never learned from the British success in Malaya, the Soviets never learnt from the US failure in Vietnam and the American and Brits never learned from the three Anglo Afghan war and the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan.

When I was in Vietnam in 1971 working with the civilan population that US dropped napalm and agent oragne on, I used to visit the Black GI bars, Judy Collins could be heard singing the Patriot Game and Joan Baez ?When will they every learn, when will they ever learn.......

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