Decision time on Afghanistan is rapidly approaching. Security responsibilities will transfer to local forces at the end of next year and, in anticipation, President Obama just received final military options from our commander in theater and hosted a gritty planning session with his Afghan counterpart.
Behind the scenes in all these conversations is Sen. Richard Burr and a law he championed last fall.
In August the president signed a bill, sponsored by Burr, requiring the State Department to address whether the “Haqqani” branch of the Taliban deserved to be officially designated as a terrorist organization. Early in September, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton determined that it did.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Haqqani associates are terrorists whether they were given the technical label or not. Just a few items on their rap sheet are suicide-bombing a Kabul hotel, assaulting the U.S. embassy and kidnapping a New York Times reporter. Several of their senior leaders already were on the terrorist list.
The significance of this decision is not in the facts it acknowledged but rather in the effect it will have on how this war ends. At its simplest, the choice involves balancing military goals with trying to negotiate political terms.
Sanctioning the Haqqani network tightens the squeeze on its resources and ratchets up the pressure for it to quit the fight. Still, surrender is improbable because the network is fighting on its home turf and because so much of its financing continues to flow freely through unscrupulous partners on the black market.
Diplomacy is another path to conclude this fight – but now that involves looking across the table at formally named terrorists.
The exact effect Burr meant to have on decisions like these is unclear. One reason to push this legislation simply would be to formalize the commonly known fact that the Haqqanis are a terrorist group. Indeed, that explanation may be sufficient. Lawmakers sped this bill through the Senate and the House by acclamation even though they have widely varying positions on the war.
Burr has been forthright about his willingness to embrace confrontation, though. “By designating [the Haqqani network] a terrorist organization,” he declared, “we will be able to more effectively pursue them and go after their financial and property interests, improving stability and security in the region and across the world.”
Left unstated is how he feels about the diplomatic track – yet those opposed to it still can undercut those who favor it by levying the toxic accusation of “negotiating with terrorists.”
Of course, President Obama could have opted not to sign this bill, and Clinton could have made a different choice. Burr only helped bring their decisions. Any limitations the administration now faces ultimately have been self-imposed.
Certifying the Haqqanis as terrorists was surprising on one hand because the White House had already sat down with the Haqqani network, but less surprising on the other because previous rounds of talks went so poorly.
Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October 2011 that, after an early meeting with the Haqqani network, “the answer was an attack on our embassy.” In light of that outcome, she responded “both” when asked by the committee chair whether our strategy was “crackdown or negotiate.” Implementing that strategy might have led the administration to cast members of Congress such as Burr in the “bad cop” role so that a sincere conversation with “good cop” diplomats looks more attractive.
Also noteworthy is that this designation separates the Haqqani network from other offshoots of the Taliban that are not on the terror list. Splintering the Taliban weakens the syndicate as a whole while possibly strengthening those elements not subject to sanctions. From this perspective, degrading the Haqqani network could also serve to firm up the Taliban faction we want as a negotiating partner.
Either of these benefits may offset the political costs of “negotiating with terrorists” and help explain why the White House aligned itself with Burr’s position. At minimum, though, it is apparent that the administration doesn’t intend to let this new political obstacle interfere with negotiations.
In remarks to the media alongside the decision, a senior administration official emphasized that “the statute does not prohibit meetings or dialogue with members of a designated [foreign terrorist organization], so it does not prohibit talking at some future date. But reconciliation remains a key component of our strategy.”
So “crackdown and negotiate” likely framed Obama’s recent conversations about the plan for our long-term military commitment as well as for achieving our political goals. Burr’s bill pushed the White House to shift it that balance.
Yet both will remain parts of the strategy. After all, any administration would insist on taking the fight to the enemy and would also have to confront the necessity of negotiating when that enemy is so deeply entrenched.
Matthew Leatherman, a North Carolina native, is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.