Vice President Joe Biden--who, it must be noted, was viewed as the main foreign policy expert in the Democratic primary--weighed in on Taliban outreach today at a news conference. His assessment: Obama was right, and negotiating with elements of the Taliban is an avenue worth exploring--but, ultimately, that outreach must be initiated by the Afghan government. Here's part of what Biden said, in response to a question about Obama's comment over the weekend:
To state the obvious, as you know, the Taliban, most of whom are Pashtun -- you have 60 percent of the Pashtun population in Pakistan; only 40 percent live in Afghanistan. The objectives that flow from Kandahar may be different than Quetta, may be different than the FATA. So it's worth exploring.
The idea of what concessions would be made is well beyond the scope of my being able to answer, except to say that whatever is initiated will have to be ultimately initiated by the Afghan government, and will have to be such that it would not undermine a legitimate Afghan government. But I do think it is worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state...
Well, I think the President is accurate; we are not now winning the war, but the war is far from lost -- number one. Number two, with regard to the experience, it is different, but not wholly different. We engaged in Iraq the most extreme elements of the Sunni resistance in Anbar Province. We ended up with an operation called the Sons of Iraq, because we accurately determined, as some of us had pointed out in numerous visits there, that the idea that every Sunni was a supporter of -- every Sunni insurgent was a supporter of al Qaeda was simply not true -- simply not true.
The same principle pertains here. Whether or not it will bear as much fruit remains to be seen. There's only one way, and that is to engage -- engage in the process, looking for pragmatic solutions to accomplishing what our goal is; that is an Afghanistan that is, at minimum goal, is not a haven for terror and is able to sustain itself on its own and provide its own security.
Key quotes: "whatever is initiated will have to be ultimately initiated by the Afghan government, and will have to be such that it would not undermine a legitimate Afghan government" and "the same principle [as with the Sunnis in Iraq] pertains here. Whether or not it will bear as much fruit remains to be seen."
Biden's comment about Afghan initiation concurs with something an Afghanistan expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Karin von Hippel, told me over the weekend: "At the end of the day it needs to be done by the Afghan government instead of by us," she said.
Biden's reasoning: any negotiation can't undermine the Afghan government.
For its part, the Afghan government says it's already been doing that--something von Hippel also pointed out. On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed Obama's comment, saying outreach to moderate Taliban has "long" been his government's policy.
The other issue is whether the Sunni analogy is apt. Biden agreed with it in principle, but he left the question open as to what ultimate effect it can be employed.
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