A Window of Opportunity in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s weekend release of several Taliban prisoners is a clear indication that insurgents and their Pakistani military supporters are ready for talks. The Haqqani network announced last week that it is willing to participate in peace talks under Afghan Taliban leadership. The Obama administration should capitalize on these developments and press for a negotiated end to the war.

Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners came in response to a three-day visit to Islamabad by the Afghan High Peace Council, the body created in 2010 by the Kabul government to oversee peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States could encourage the process by following Pakistan’s lead and acting on the proposed transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar. Turning over the handful of Taliban prisoners being held in Guantánamo would further boost prospects for peace talks.

The administration says that the local parties—the Kabul government, the insurgents, and Pakistan—must take the lead in negotiating a peace agreement, but U.S. leadership is indispensable for achieving progress. Some in Congress and the administration are wary of negotiating with the Taliban for fear of conferring legitimacy on the insurgents. Women in Afghanistan worry that negotiations will empower those who want to turn back the clock on the human rights and development gains of the past decade. These are legitimate concerns, but they are not an argument for opposing diplomacy. The alternative—continued armed conflict and perhaps civil war—will mean further human losses and will jeopardize and ultimately undermine the prospects for development and human rights.  Renewed civil war would be a damning verdict on a costly decade of U.S. intervention.

Opinion polls show that Afghans overwhelmingly oppose a return to Taliban rule. The best guarantee against a Taliban takeover is the inclusion of the Afghan people in a peace process. The Afghan Women’s Network and other civil society groups have called for an inclusive process that provides a role for all significant sectors of Afghan society. Women in particular should be guaranteed a seat at the table. Research shows that peace agreements in which civil society groups have an active role in monitoring and implementation the terms of a settlement are more likely to succeed.

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces will be crucial to the prospects for successful negotiations. The Pentagon is pressing for a security agreement with the Kabul government that reportedly allows for the long-term presence of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops. That could be a deal-killer, since insurgents have insisted that U.S. forces leave. Maintaining a limited number of non-combat troops during the initial transition period may be appropriate—as security assurance for the Kabul regime, and as bargaining leverage to gain Taliban cooperation—but Washington must be willing to accept an agreement that includes complete military withdrawal. We should also be prepared to support the deployment of a Muslim-led interim security force to monitor and implement a peace agreement if the local parties request it.

Many obstacles stand in the way of a negotiated settlement. Even if formal talks begin soon, the process is likely to take many months, perhaps years. All the more reason to get started. The stage is being set, and the time to act is now. President Obama should use some of the political capital from his impressive election victory to exercise leadership for long-term peace.

What Happened to Smart Sanctions?

In the 1990s, because of the horrific humanitarian costs of the draconian embargo against Iraq, the United States and other countries adopted a policy of targeted sanctions. No longer would nations impose general sanctions that harm innocent populations. The focus instead would be on pressuring specific individuals and entities responsible for wrongdoing through arms embargoes and selective measures such as travel bans and asset freezes.

Today in Iran the United States and the European Union have abandoned the idea of smart sanctions. U.S. and EU sanctions have hammered Iran’s banking industry and oil trading sector and are starting to devastate the economy. The goal is to make sanctions ‘bite’ so that the Tehran government will yield to Western demands, but so far Iranian officials remain defiant.

Meanwhile the costs for the people of Iran are mounting. Oil exports have dropped in half, national income is plummeting, inflation has gone through the roof, and economic hardships are mounting. Vulnerable medical patients cannot get the medicines they need. Recent reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times indicate that chemotherapy drugs are hard to obtain and in short supply. Food and medicines are exempt from sanctions, but if they they cannot be financed, the exemption is meaningless. In response to the troubling news stories the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently loosened regulations for exporting medicines to Iran, but the larger problem of how to finance such purchases remains.

Policy makers seem to have forgotten the reasons for shifting to targeted sanctions. The purpose is not only to avoid unintended humanitarian consequences but to minimize the risk of a rally-round-the-flag effect. When sanctions harm the innocent they lose legitimacy and political support. Governments under blanket sanctions can blame their country’s economic and social miseries on external enemies, diverting attention from their own mismanagement. They can isolate domestic opponents by accusing them of helping foreign enemies. All of these trends are evident now in Iran. Sanctions have made life more difficult for reformers and human rights advocates—which is why many opponents of the regime, including Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, are critical of them.

It is important to distinguish between UN sanctions and the broader measures imposed by the United States and the European Union. The sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council are more selective and targeted. They freeze the assets and ban the travel of approximately 100 Iranian officials and entities responsible for the country’s nuclear program. They do not hurt ordinary people. These sanctions have the unanimous support of the Security Council, including China and Russia. They signal strong international opposition to an Iranian bomb program. They provide bargaining leverage that can be used to reach a negotiated agreement to end the nuclear standoff.

Sanctions that target potential bomb makers are smart. Those that harm innocent civilians are counterproductive and should be abandoned.