- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The first real opposition to President Obama’s foreign policy surfaced last week and it came from his supporters.

The president prompted the criticism by telling the New York Times that his administration could engage in dialogue with the moderate element of the Taliban.

It is understandable that Mr. Obama would investigate every avenue, highway, road and bypass leading to an honorable exit from Afghanistan. That war has already lasted far too long, has cost too much in lives and finances - and still there is no end in sight. And worst, America’s NATO allies do not seem enthralled about addressing a problem that is far closer to their borders than to the U.S. shores.

But when we talk about the Taliban, it is difficult to envisage a “moderate” element among such extremists. Can moderates be among such fanatical thinkers?

We are talking about the same people, surely, for whom women’s rights are nonexistent. The people for whom, when they held power, halftime entertainment at soccer games consisted of stoning to death women accused of adultery, as well as other forms of execution and torture. This is the same Taliban that dynamited ancient giant statues of Buddha, that banned the arts, music and even the flying of kites.

Thankfully for mankind, there is only one Taliban. But of course, everything is relative. Yes, certainly there are relative moderates in the Taliban. But just how moderate are they?

No doubt, one of the lessons of the Afghan war, just as of the Iraq war, is that the West should not be in the business of nation-building. But now that the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it is premature to talk about disengagement when nothing is yet resolved.

The previous U.S. administration wrongly believed it could install Western-style democracy in a matter of months; and in a land where history, culture and tribal traditions go back thousands of years.

And now the new administration mistakenly believes it can change the ways of radicals, like those in the Taliban, if only they agree to talk. If and when such negotiations do take place, the Taliban is quite likely to agree to just about anything - on paper at least. Implementing those agreements will be a very different ball of wax.

The Obama administration should not be fooled into believing it can strike just any deal with the Taliban. Quitting Afghanistan should not come at any price; because in the long run, the price will be hefty.

What are the implications of a quick U.S. pullout from Afghanistan? It’s a four-part answer.

Most obviously it would impact on Afghanistan and its people. Abandoning a government it helped set up would severely damage the credibility of the U.S. Within a short time the Taliban would return to power with a subsequent wave of massive arrests and executions. It would force many thousands of Afghans to flee the country once again, not to mention what it would do for the halftime entertainment at soccer games.

Second is the effect a pullout would have on the immediate neighbors, such as Pakistan and Iran. A nuclear-armed Pakistan, where numerous elements in the military and the intelligence services sympathize with the Taliban, would make many in the region very nervous.

Third, much as the Europeans and NATO dislike having to contribute to the Afghan war effort, they are far better off today fighting the enemy in Afghanistan than having to defend their own borders.

And finally, the United States: Understandably, given the economy and the cost involved in the war, the Obama administration wants to disengage as quickly as possible.

What is needed is a completely new approach to the way this war is being fought. Conventional armies do not fare well in unconventional warfare. A new approach to Afghanistan can make greater use of covert operations. This might not be pleasing to many, but it remains the most realistic and feasible approach to fighting and winning this war.

• Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times. Adrienne Washington will return next week.

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