In the Arena

Petraeus on Reconciliation

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Fred Kaplan has, as usual, a smart account of David Petraeus’s recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, in which the general talked about the need to negotiate with enemies. Kaplan points out the crucial difference between preparations and preconditions when you’re about to talk to your foes:

Asked about a British officer’s recent statement that at some point, we’ll have to strike a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, matter-of-factly, “You have to talk to enemies.”
He added that the British know this especially well, as they’ve “sat down with thugs throughout their history, including us, I suspect.”
Petraeus quickly added that, of course, you have to go into the talks with an agenda, and you have to know what your objectives are. But his point and these particular caveats are consistent with the distinction that Obama has repeatedly made between “preparations” and “preconditions”—the former being common sense and the latter being an insistence that the other side satisfy our demands before we so much as sit down with them (a position that even President Bush, its most dogmatic advocate, has recently begun to reconsider, especially in North Korea).
In Iraq, the general recalled in his Heritage speech, “we sat down with some of those who were shooting at us”—a painful task but “an explicit part of our campaign.” These talks formed the basis for the Anbar Awakening—in which Sunni insurgents allied themselves with U.S. forces to beat back the common foe of al-Qaida in Iraq—and for the tactical success of the “surge” itself.

A couple of additional points here:

A great many generals–Tommy Franks comes to mind–have broadbrushed and overstated progress as egregiously as politicians (John McCain comes to mind) do. Petraeus has never been like that. He has always sought to keep himself separate from politics, despite McCain’s efforts to portray the general as the campaign’s mascot. He has never talked of “victory” in Iraq–since he know that “victory” is something only the Iraqis can do for themselves. In my conversations with Petraeus and his staff, they’ve always been open to all sorts of ideas–eager, in fact, to think the unthinkable, to try anything within reason to reduce the level of violence. It is hard to imagine what President McCain would have said if Petraeus–or, better still, some non-mythologized general–had proposed, “Well, Mr. President, we’re thinking about negotiating with some of the jihadi tribes that support Al Qaeda in Iraq and see if we can pay them to switch sides.” (“You’re talking like that one!” McCain might have blustered.)

On Afghanistan and Pakistan: I’ve been reading an excellent book called “Descent in Chaos” by the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who agrees with Petraeus about negotiating with the Taliban–who, as with AQI, are a plural, disorganized phenomenon. Rashid points out that a number of Afghanis wanted southern Pashtun tribes (most of which were Taliban-affiliated, but not religious extremists) to attend the Bonn peace conference in 2002, but the proposal was rejected by Franks and Bush–consequently, Hamid Karzai was the only southern Pastu involved in the negotiations. We’re paying the price for that now.

Rashid also writes, in astonishing detail, about how Pakistan’s pro-Taliban ISI played us for fools in the early stages of the war, enabling the Al Qaeda leadership to get out of Dodge. Really depressing stuff…(And something McCain should consider before he criticizes Obama again for wanting to stage targeted hits on Al Qaeda positions in Pakistan.)

It’ll be interesting to see how Petraeus, who is just getting his feet wet in Afghanistan, evaluates and responds to the deteriorating situation there.