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No time to talk

The situation in Iraq, Afghanistan is a result of US disdain for negotiations, writes AG Noorani.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2007 01:46 IST
AG Noorani
AG Noorani

With the execution of Saddam Hussein, the US has accomplished the principal objective of its invasion of Iraq. On July 23, 2002, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had told Prime Minister Tony Blair that “Bush had made up his mind to take military action ... but the case was thin”. Saddam Hussein “was not threatening his neighbours”. His WMD capacity was slender. Attorney General Goldsmith said that “regime change” (Hussein’s elimination) was “not a legal base for military action”. Brazen lies were told in its justification. Iraq is ruined by ethnic split, civil war, rise of religiosity, nearly two million refugees, a collapsed economy and rise in terrorism.

All this because the US disdains negotiation and practises unilateralism based on brute force. Policies towards Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea also reflect this approach. In each case, negotiation could have accomplished legitimate objectives and ensured peace. On the eve of the war, Saddam Hussein offered “a quite astonishing proposal”, as Richard Perle, member of the Pentagon’s Defence Planning Board, put it.

Iraq no longer had WMD. The US could “send 2,000 FBI agents to look at whatever they wanted”. It was prepared to immediately hand over Abdur Rehman Yasin, indicted in the 1993 WTC bombings, who bore a $ 25 million reward for his capture. Polls would be held within two years. Iraq offered cooperation in fighting terrorism and “full support for any US plan” in the peace process in Palestine. He also promised the US “first priority as it relates to Iraq oil, mining rights” and cooperation with US strategic interests in the region. There would be “direct US involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq”.

The offer was made by the Chief of Operations of Iraq’s Intelligence Services, Hassan el-Obeidi, and confirmed by its Director, Tahir Jalil Habbush Al-Takriti, with Saddam Hussein’s backing. The middleman was a Lebanese-American businessman, Imad Hage, who contacted Michael Maloof of an intelligence unit in the Pentagon. The CIA told Perle, “Tell them that we shall see them in Baghdad.”

A highly-respected correspondent, James Risen of The New York Times, reported the parleys with a wealth of detail, based on documents (International Herald Tribune, November 7, 2003). It was one of several US contacts with Iraqis. But Hage told Obeidi that the US “seemed adamant about Saddam giving up power”. That was the prime objective. Saddam Hussein was not tried by the International Criminal Court or one set up by the Security Council, unlike Slobodan Milosevic, because their statutes bar the death penalty. Hence, the trial by Iraqi proxies.

It is the same story in Afghanistan. Terrorism has grown. The Taliban is resurgent. Opium production has “soared 19-fold”. On November 11, 1996, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel, warned in private, “It is not in the interest of Afghanistan or any of us that the Taliban be isolated.” But in 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright publicly called them “despicable”. They sought recognition by the US.

In June 1998, the Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, made a secret deal with Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence, to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial in Saudi Arabia through a joint Saudi-Afghan Commission which would formulate a legal justification for his expulsion. In July, an envoy was sent to Riyadh to confirm the deal. Osama’s Arab bodyguards were replaced with Afghans.

Bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania prompted the US to fire 79 missiles on Khost to kill Osama. In September, the Mullah refused to hand over Osama and risk the odium of surrender of a ‘guest’. Mullah Omar called Michael Malinowsky two days later to complain, yet “agreed to talk”.

By April 2000, the Mullah “wanted to get rid of Osama but did not know how”, Pakistan’s diplomat S Iftikhar Murshed records in his memoirs, Afghanistan: The Taliban Years. Omar said he was in a bind and proposed a group of ulema from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and a third Islamic country to decide the issue. The Taliban would comply. The proposal was rejected by the Saudis and the Americans. Omar set up a committee headed by the Chief Justice to receive any evidence the US provided.

In March 2001, two proposals were revived. David Ottaway and Joe Stephens of Washington Post reported on October 29, 2001, that the deal fell through because the US demanded that “Bin Laden face trial in the US”. Surrender terms are offered all the time. Murshed concludes: “The 9/11 tragedy might not have happened... The opportunity was squandered.”

If in 2003, President Hamid Karzai said “there is a vast difference between terrorists and the Taliban”, on September 9, 2006, a minister in the Foreign Office said that Britain would “welcome it if Afghanistan and Taliban decide to come to the negotiating table”, the BBC telecast a documentary, Al-Qaeda: Time to talk?, and Karzai declared “we are ready to negotiate” with the Taliban.

Clinton engaged North Korea. Bush scorned it. Bob Woodward reports that in 2002, Bush said, “I loathe Kim Jong Il.” Waving his finger in the air, he shouted, “I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy.”

South Korea’s former President, Kim Dae Jung, a Nobel laureate, has been pleading for a dialogue with Kim. “North Korea has declared that it would give up its nuclear weapons if the United States agrees to direct dialogue and guarantees the security and unhampered economic activities of North Korea. North Korea has even said that it would allow direct inspection by the US. In effect, North Korea is saying, ‘Why would we need nuclear weapons if our security is assured? We will fully cooperate in the de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.’ ”

In 2002, Bush terminated the 1994 agreement. “Eventually, it could have led to North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts in exchange for diplomatic recognition by the US and economic incentives,” Jon B. Wolfsthal, an American inspector there, lamented.

All the elements of confrontation are in place in the US policy on Iran — pre-conditions, use of dissidents for regime change and demonisation of the leaders. In this case, too, a wide-ranging conciliatory offer was made to the US. In 2003, Iran sent the US a non-paper through the Swiss embassy in Teheran, offering a compromise on the nuclear issue. It covered “decisive action against terrorism”. These extracts reveal its spirit and the enormity of the US’s diplomatic bankruptcy: “establishment of a common group; active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilisation; US commitment to actively support Iranian reparation claims within the discussion on Iraq foreign debts; Iranian general statement ‘to support a peaceful solution in the Middle East involving the parties concerned’; US general statement that ‘Iran did not belong to the axis of evil’. ” It covered disarmament, ‘regional security’ and ‘economic cooperation’. The US rejected the offer.

Diplomatic creativity is evident also in Iran’s ‘response’ to the EU’s package of June 6, 2006. Its emphasis is on a wider political framework. The US will discover the wisdom of Horace’s words: “Brute force without wisdom falls by its own weight.” Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that. The lesson must be learnt for Iran and North Korea. Think of the situation today if the US had not rejected the overtures by Iraq and Iran.

First Published: Jan 16, 2007 01:46 IST