Somewhat guardedly, the outgoing US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, announced on 20 June that the United States and "others" were engaged in talks with the Taliban. No further details were provided except, when pressed, Gates hesitatingly said that the talks had been going on for about two weeks.
Less guardedly the US President, Barack Obama, announced on Thursday a withdrawal of 10,000 US troops by December this year. They are said to be part of the "surge" of 33,000 troops deployed into Afghanistan over the past 30 months. The remaining 23,000 will be withdrawn next year.
Obama claims they are being withdrawn because of the military success against the Taliban and the increasing capability of the Afghan army to carry the load — neither of which is true.
The Australian Prime Minister, in a predictable statement, said Australia welcomed the announcement but that Australian troops would remain in Uruzgan province until at least 2014, when the Afghan people take over their own security.
There have been rumours of talks with the Taliban for over a year. It was said that the Dutch engaged in a dialogue prior to their departure from Afghanistan. From time to time reports have appeared of both the British and Americans having contact with representatives of the Taliban, and officials from Pakistan have maintained contact with the Taliban throughout the war. The Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence organisation (ISI) has provided training and supplies, including arms, to elements of the Taliban.
Gates said that he doubted the Taliban would engage in serious discussion until they suffered further military setbacks, he put the time for these discussions toward the end of the year.
Gates appears to have been pushed into his announcement by a precipitate statement from the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, on the 19 June, claiming that the US and the Taliban were engaged in talks.
Talks only began in earnest between the North Vietnamese and the US, when America realised the war was unwinnable and wanted out. Right now, the US economy is stagnant, with few signs of recovery and with Obama seeking Congressional approval to extend the national debt to $US21 Trillion from $US14 Trillion, it is fair to assume that the Administration wants out of this war. Obama said when announcing the troop withdrawals, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home".
So the US is talking to the Taliban and perhaps has been doing so for some time, but who are they talking to? The Taliban are an alliance, a loose alliance, that will likely disintegrate and turn upon itself when the US and NATO leave Afghanistan. Who is the US talking to with confidence that their interlocutors can deliver?
Was the Australian government aware that its US ally was engaged in talks or soundings with representatives of the Taliban? Has Australia been involved as one of the "other" countries?
I sought a response from the office of the Prime Minister, and that of Defence and Foreign Ministers. Neither the office of the Prime Minister nor of Defence responded.
I sent the following; "The ABC reports today that outgoing US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has said that talks are taking place with the Taliban. These talks have been taking place for at least several weeks and involve other countries as well as the US. Is Australia a party to these talks? If not, was it advised of the talks? If so when?"
The reply from the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs was; "The US has made no secret of its interest in facilitating a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The Australian Government has long stated that the conflict in Afghanistan will not be solved by military force alone. Australia supports reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. Australia believes this process must be Afghan-led and subject to insurgents agreeing to renounce violence, sever links with terrorist organisations, and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan."
I found the response defensive and irrelevant. No attempt was made to answer the questions posed, which, given the non response from Julia Gillard’s and Stephen Smith’s office and the deflection from Kevin Rudd’s, led me to believe that the Australian government knew nothing of this "outreach initiative" being extended to the Taliban.
However, the response does raise some interesting questions. I would like to have spelt out what political solution(s) the US envisions as possible or probable in Afghanistan? In what ways does the Australian government see resolution of the conflict by means other than military? With whom and by what means does Australia support reconciliation in Afghanistan? Does Australia regard the ISI as a terrorist organisation? Who is going to define terrorist, given that not only does the ISI support the Taliban, it also deals with US and Australian officials?
Obama now states that, "We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban."
This statement ignores the fact the US took one side in the war which rendered reconciliation impossible, and until recently one of the stated aims of the war was to militarily defeat and crush the Taliban. The President’s statement indicates a change to, if not reversal of, US policy toward Afghanistan — a change that has gone unremarked in Australia.
Both major parties in Australia have few doubts about the need to stay the course in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has said we are there for the long haul and the Leader of the Opposition agrees on the basis that Afghanistan must be turned into a state that will never again harbour terrorists. Is another three years a long haul? Gillard had been talking about another 10 years, at least until 2020. When did 2014 become an end point? Will Australian troops be among the last to leave? At what point does their security become critical in light of American withdrawals? Who is providing Gillard, Smith and Rudd with advice on Afghanistan?
Removed, as it appears to be, from the "outreach initiative" and absent both physically and intellectually from the policy process now unfolding, Australia has once again given the United States a blank cheque to do what it likes with our troops. Without an Australian input into US foreign policy and strategic plans in Afghanistan, our contribution becomes little more than supplying mercenaries.
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