Shibboleths of the Afghanistan Debate

Recent statements coming from the White House making distinctions between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and implying that the Taliban is somehow less inimical to U.S. interests are incongruous with developments on the ground, including a major suicide bombing in front of the Indian Embassy in Kabul on Thursday morning and another major bombing that killed at least 49 on the other side of the border in Peshawar, Pakistan. The back-to-back blasts straddling the border underscore the instability in the region and the need for President Obama to demonstrate decisiveness with his strategy for Afghanistan.

If President Obama is seeking to better understand the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he should listen to Bruce Riedel, an advisor who helped lay the foundations for his strategy toward the region earlier this year. In an October 8 interview on the dangers of delaying decision making on Afghanistan, Riedel says it is a “fairy tale” to think that the Taliban can be split off from al-Qaeda. Riedel further argues that the bar for determining whether the Taliban are willing to enter into serious negotiations with the U.S. should be whether they are willing to hand over Osama bin Laden.

President Obama’s statement yesterday that he was not considering withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan was somewhat of a relief, but he needs to go further and be clear as to whether the U.S. is committed to ensuring it will not allow Afghanistan to return to the harsh Taliban rule of the 1990s. This would help clarify U.S. goals in the region for multiple audiences, not the least of which are Pakistani strategists who believe the Afghan Taliban represent their best chance for countering Indian influence in the country.

The Pakistani foreign minister recently questioned Indian investment and aid to Afghanistan, saying, “They have to justify their interest. They do not share a border with Afghanistan, whereas we do. So the level of engagement has to be commensurate with that.” His statements imply that Afghanistan is not a sovereign country and that Afghan leaders must accommodate their neighbors when deciding which countries they will allow to invest in their country.

It is time for the U.S. to state its objectives in Afghanistan with clarity so that we can partner effectively with those who also are interested in Afghanistan’s long-term stability and confront with surety and strength those who oppose that goal.

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