Having tea with Taliban
Very few sane people would visit the American city of Detroit were it not Motown, hub of its automotive industry. I’ve been there a couple of times, on each occasion for the North American International Auto Show in the sprawling Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, staying in hotels that go into lockdown mode after sundown.
Beyond enclaves like Greektown, Detroit is a municipal husk, urban blight compounded by government gone wild. For instance, for a city that’s experiencing death by debt, its Water and Sewage Department employs a farrier despite the absence of horses to shoe for decades. But that’s only a nagging detail.
Detroit is on the cusp of bankruptcy barring a bailout, the largest major metropolitan area in the country to commit suicide. It’s gone for broke due to a bankruptcy of ideas. Curiously enough, Detroit’s debt burden, at approximately $18 billion, is almost equal to the GDP of another place beset with runaway violence coupled with corrupt governance — Afghanistan.
That nation is a year away from chaos, or actually, complete chaos. Just about the only positive news to have emerged from Afghanistan in the recent past was the tweeted image of a rhesus monkey in the backseat of a Kabul cab. Unfortunately, even that simian appeared aptly morose.
America’s retreat from Afghanistan was certainly a major component of discussions as its Vice-President Joe Biden visited this week, arriving in New Delhi with a cheesy thumbs-up for photogs, it was reasonable to wonder if he hadn’t chosen the wrong digit to display.
The necessary ‘outcomes’ that the US seeks includes provisos that “any Afghan-led process that involves the Taliban has to be breaking with al Qaeda, renouncing violence, and abiding by the terms of the Afghan constitution.” Biden is the cheerful cheerleader for this charade. After all, as a wonky policymaker, he didn’t mind ceding the countryside to the Taliban (as James Traub points out in a Foreign Policy magazine profile of the vice-president), or upping aid to Pakistan to reward it for upping the ante when it came to subverting the Karzai government in Kabul.
Taliban reassurances, obviously, are worth their weight in garbage. As Pakistan’s former Ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed, the Mullah Omar regime, referring to their “guest” Osama bin Laden, had once promised the Clinton team that it “instructed him not to commit, support or plan any terrorist acts from Afghan soil”. We all know how splendidly that turned out.
So, essentially, this Tea with the Taliban isn’t a particularly original policy, though that’s expected from strategists like Biden, who while running for President in 1997, plagiarised portions of a speech delivered earlier by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. What’s more worrying, or instructive, is the source of that inspiration: Kinnock lost consecutive elections, the second despite his party enjoying a substantial lead in opinion polls. In Biden’s case, the phrase ‘learning from failure’ takes on another twist.
Recently, while in Britain, Biden said, “I spent half my life on the national security council.” Geostrategic analysts whipped out their calculators and figured out that meant Biden was eight years old, partly explaining the maturity the Obama administration brings to the global stage.
Former senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the late Af-Pak supremo, Vali Nasr, offers an insight into the Obama administration’s fatal distractions when it comes to its geostrategic gambits, in his book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. He writes that “it is not going too far to say that American foreign policy had become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.” Biden, of course, was part of the leadership that crafted this campaign based on a bankruptcy of ideals. America’s going broke when it comes to being on the money in Afghanistan. Unlike Detroit, though, as the wheels come off, India will find itself caught in the coming crash.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal