Revealed: secret Taliban peace bid

The Taliban have been engaged in secret talks about ending the conflict in Afghanistan in a wide-ranging ‘peace process’ sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain, The Observer can reveal.

The unprecedented negotiations involve a senior former member of the hardline Islamist movement travelling between Kabul, the bases of the Taliban senior leadership in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and European capitals. Britain has provided logistic and diplomatic support for the talks – despite official statements that negotiations can be held only with Taliban who are ready to renounce, or have renounced, violence.

Sources in Afghanistan confirmed the controversial talks, though they said that in recent weeks they had ‘lost momentum’. According to Afghan government officials in Kabul, the intensity of the fighting this summer has been one factor. Another is the inconsistency of the Taliban’s demands.

‘They keep changing what they are asking for. One day it is one thing, the next another,’ one Afghan government adviser with knowledge of the negotiations said. One aim of the initiative is to drive a wedge between Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Taliban. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Had America not been burdened by a bonehead in the White House surrounded by neoconservative handlers, a weak-kneed Congress, and a too easily terrorized populace, serious dialogue with the Taliban could have started in September 2001. With patience and perhaps not even a single shot fired, al Qaeda could have been dismantled and its leadership captured and there would have neither been a war in Afghanistan, nor in Iraq.

Over the intervening seven years who can say with any certainty that either the Taliban or Saddam would have been able to retain power? At the same time, so many ruptures across the region and around the globe could without doubt have been avoided.

A lack of courage forestalled the quiet approach, while an excess of fear drove the recourse to violence.

Why the West thinks it is time to talk to the Taliban

For the past few months an incongruous figure has passed through the airports of the Middle East and Europe: a senior Afghan cleric who defected from the Taliban. Bearded and in traditional dress, he has unsurprisingly needed the help of the Saudi Arabian and British intelligence services – among others – to pass unhindered between capitals.

He has always travelled in great secrecy, his movements known only to a few individuals at the highest levels of the Afghan government, in Riyadh and among certain Western allies. His mission: to talk to the Taliban leadership about a possible peace deal.

The backing given by the West to these talks is a measure of how badly things have gone wrong in Afghanistan, and how far Western governments are prepared to go to stabilise a deteriorating situation which is costing more in men, money and political capital than they ever imagined. The equally worrying situation in Pakistan, where the Taliban are largely based and where a separate but related insurgency has broken out, has given the initiative a new urgency. [continued…]

McCain’s suspension bridge to nowhere

What we learned last week is that the man who always puts his “country first” will take the country down with him if that’s what it takes to get to the White House.

For all the focus on Friday night’s deadlocked debate, it still can’t obscure what preceded it: When John McCain gratuitously parachuted into Washington on Thursday, he didn’t care if his grandstanding might precipitate an even deeper economic collapse. All he cared about was whether he might save his campaign. George Bush put more deliberation into invading Iraq than McCain did into his own reckless invasion of the delicate Congressional negotiations on the bailout plan.

By the time he arrived, there already was a bipartisan agreement in principle. It collapsed hours later at the meeting convened by the president in the Cabinet Room. Rather than help try to resuscitate Wall Street’s bloodied bulls, McCain was determined to be the bull in Washington’s legislative china shop, running around town and playing both sides of his divided party against Congress’s middle. Once others eventually forged a path out of the wreckage, he’d inflate, if not outright fictionalize, his own role in cleaning up the mess his mischief helped make. Or so he hoped, until his ignominious retreat. [continued…]

Palin punching over her weight on foreign policy

In recent days, conservatives have been circulating an e-mail equating Palin’s meager executive experience with that of Theodore Roosevelt, who had been governor of New York for only two years when William McKinley picked him as his running mate in 1900.

Like Palin, the colorful, outspoken patrician was ridiculed by his opponents.

But there the comparison ends. Roosevelt, who traveled widely, had a passionate, omnivorous intellect.

He wrote 35 books on subjects ranging from wildlife to the history of the American West. He had been a combat unit commander — the famous Rough Riders — in Cuba, and an assistant secretary of the Navy.

Equating him to Palin is obscene. But if a comparison be made, it is this: Roosevelt knew what he was talking about.

Palin is a babe in the woods. And the wolves are ready. [continued…]

In search of Sarah Palin

I was struck watching her in St. Paul, where she appeared after five days of relentless media pressure and blew the doubts away, that she had the jauntiness of one who knew her own gifts: knew she could connect to a crowd and raise the roof and stomp her opponent with her sensible high heels. And of course, benefit from her critics’ instinct to underestimate her.

Now that confidence seems gone, replaced by cockiness — which is just insecurity on steroids. With Charlie Gibson the waters were smooth if shallow; with Katie Couric she seemed forever at risk of drowning in her own syntax. But if she’s growing less surefooted with each passing day of cramming, who can blame her, when the highly experienced Republican pols around her don’t seem to trust her to talk past her talking points. Talk about undermining your brand; if she was picked as the Outsider Original Maverick with the experience and courage to help clean up Washington, you can’t argue that she’s not giving interviews because the press is so mean to her. She’s ready for a cage fight with Nancy Pelosi but won’t sit down with Campbell Brown? [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The fact that Sarah Palin is neither ready nor likely would ever be ready to become vice president of president, does not need to be belabored. And the fact that she has remained shielded from the press merely reveals either that she’s as scared as are her handlers of the risks involved in speaking for herself, or, she can’t stand up for herself.

The most important questions now are not about Palin but about the process that led to her choice. Either McCain didn’t know enough about her — in which case he’s a reckless fool — or he was so cynical, arrogant and contemptuous as to imagine that her appearances could be stage-managed so rigorously that her deficits could sufficiently be concealed for just two months. In other words, he saw her as an expendable commodity. He took a wager on a Palin tactic but had no interest in a Palin strategy.

What a surge can’t solve in Afghanistan

If there was one foreign policy issue on which Barack Obama and John McCain agreed during Friday night’s debate, it was that the United States should send more troops to Afghanistan. The bipartisan enthusiasm for this surge is so strong that there has been relatively little discussion of whether this strategy makes sense.

So here’s a skeptical look at the issue, drawn from conversations during a visit to Afghanistan this month with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Rather than more troops, the real game-changer in Afghanistan may be Gates’s plan to spend an extra $1.3 billion on surveillance technology to find and destroy the leadership of the insurgency. [continued…]

Taliban revival sets fear swirling through Kabul

Maryam Rahmani was asleep in her parents’ house in Kabul last month when she was woken by loud praying in the street. “Most of us when we heard that thought, ‘This is it, the Taliban have come to the city’,” she said, nervously fingering the orange shawl wrapped round her against the autumn chill.

In fact it was a lunar eclipse and people had come outside to offer special prayers. But Rahmani’s reaction reflects the jumpiness in Kabul as the Taliban move to within 20 minutes’ drive of the Afghan capital.

“Everyone’s nervous, particularly educated women,” said Rahmani, 26, who works at a women’s project and is completing an economics degree at Kabul University. “I’m hurrying to finish my thesis so I can get my diploma in case the Taliban come back. All my friends are applying for Indian visas.” [continued…]

Bush’s third war

President Bush will leave office without concluding either of the two wars he initiated after 9/11. Now, in the waning months of his administration, the president seems intent on expanding his “global war on terror” still farther. To the existing fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is adding a third: Pakistan.

Eclipsed perhaps only by Iraq, Pakistan ranks in the very top tier of the Bush administration’s foreign policy blunders. Even as it vowed following 9/11 to never compromise with evil, the administration wasted no time in forging an alliance with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the army general who seized power in 1999 through a military coup. Although Musharraf was anything but a democrat, Bush proclaimed him a close friend and ally. Washington quickly began funneling military and economic aid toward Islamabad, the total since 2001 exceeding $13 billion.

Unfortunately, Musharraf was not only a dictator, he was incompetent. Two themes defined his presidency: a gradual erosion of domestic legitimacy that paralyzed and then doomed his regime, and a steady erosion of Pakistan’s already shaky control over its frontier provinces bordering Afghanistan. For Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters ousted from their Afghan sanctuaries, the Pakistani Northwest Frontier became a refuge in which to establish training camps and support areas. Although U.S. civilian and military officials pushed and prodded Musharraf to crack down on this Taliban and Al Qaeda presence, little effective action resulted. [continued…]

The long road to chaos in Pakistan

Hours after a truck bomber slew 53 people last weekend at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, the country’s interior minister laid responsibility for the attack on Taliban militants holed up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, the remote, wild region that straddles the border with Afghanistan.

“All roads lead to FATA,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

If the past is any guide, Mr. Malik’s statement is almost certainly correct.

But what Mr. Malik did not say was that those same roads, if he chose to follow them, would very likely loop back to Islamabad itself. [continued…]

Race for president builds characters

This election campaign is about more than its issues, slogans, proposals, strategies, tactics, attacks or counterattacks. Like most presidential elections, it represents a collision of myths. Every four years, various versions of America wrestle with one another, and through this combat, the nation inspects itself, turns itself over and over, striving to choose not only how it wants to be led but what it wants to affirm, how it wants to be known — really, what it wants to be.

Americans, of course, aren’t always focused on these grand stakes; day to day, they see a more down-to-earth campaign — the stump speeches, the barbs and one-liners, the attack ads. Pettiness consumes the attention of journalists and the prurient interest of the jaded. Sometimes the combat rises to the level of issues and policies. Sometimes it even approximates a rational contest as the candidates try to explain what they think is wrong and what they propose to do about it. Petty or substantive, all these are elements of the surface campaign, which may, in the end, determine who wins and loses but also obscures what is really at stake.

The true campaign is the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they represent — what they symbolize. [continued…]

Everybody calm down. A government hand in the economy is as old as the republic.

It has become fashionable to fret that the current crisis on Wall Street marks the end of American capitalism as we know it. “This massive bailout is not the solution,” Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) warned Tuesday. “It is financial socialism, and it is un-American.” It is neither. The near-collapse of the U.S. financial system and Washington’s sudden and massive intervention to try to shore it up certainly mark a major turning point, but a bailout would represent a thoroughly American next step for our economic system — and one that will probably lead to better times.

Americans may assume that the basics of capitalism have been firmly established here since time immemorial, but historical cataclysms such as the Great Depression strongly suggest otherwise. Simply put, capitalism evolves. And we need to understand its trajectory if we are to bring our economic system into greater accord with the other great source of American strength: the best principles of our democracy. [continued…]

The lost tycoons

With breathtaking speed, the world of large Wall Street investment banks has vanished. Fabled firms, some more than a century old, have been merged out of existence (Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch), gone bankrupt (Lehman Brothers), or sought asylum as commercial bank holding companies (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley). Why on earth did this happen?

The death of Wall Street has been a long-running, slow-motion crisis, barely discernible to participants who had still booked huge profits in recent years. Beneath the razzle-dazzle of trading desks and the wizardry of esoteric finance lay the inescapable fact that these firms had shed their original reason for being: providing capital to American business. [continued…]

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