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reflections

Nov 17, 2008 | 02:57 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Peace Processes Proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Iraqi Cabinet approved the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on Sunday. Under the agreement, which still has to be ratified by parliament, U.S. troops will withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. Before that, however, the agreement will place U.S. forces under the authority of the Iraqi government and will require them to gain Baghdad's permission to conduct raids on Iraqi homes. U.S. forces will stop patrolling Iraqi towns by the middle of 2009. By the end of 2009, U.S. forces will withdraw from populated areas, and all U.S. bases will be turned over to Iraqi control. Opposition to the agreement came from both the Sunni and Shiite communities. In the end, however, a compromise was struck, leaving only the more hard-line elements from both communities maintaining their opposition. Radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's movement is the key group that continues to oppose SOFA. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government is unlikely to have approved the accord without making sure that the Iranians were generally on board with it. Nonetheless, the official Iranian response remains to be seen in terms of how Tehran actually reacts — whether it will use assets in Iraq to try to disrupt the withdrawal (assuming it has enough assets), or wait and try to influence the government in Baghdad, or try to reach a comprehensive settlement with the United States on Iraq. We suspect that the Iranians don't know what they will do themselves, and are debating the point even now. It is in this context that we should read the comments of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said publicly that he would be prepared to negotiate directly with Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban government that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion. Omar has a $10 million price on his head, offered by the United States. That makes Karzai's offer to talk and provide protection for Omar a fairly radical step for a president who depends heavily on the United States for his regime's survival and his personal safety. Karzai was quite aggressive about it during a press conference: "If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar — the international community has a choice: remove me or leave if they disagree." Karzai is not saying this in a vacuum. U.S. Gen. David Petraeus is now heading Central Command, controlling the operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus knows that the path from the pre-surge chaos to the SOFA agreement was a fundamental decision by the United States: to negotiate with the Sunni insurgents, accept the idea that former insurgents eventually would become part of the coalition in Baghdad under U.S. sponsorship and finally, accept the idea that the Iraqi government would not necessarily be pro-American. The Americans settled for Baghdad not being a puppet of Iran. While there will not be a wholesale implementation of the Iraq strategy in Afghanistan (where the situation is different and more complex), Petraeus has made it clear that he is prepared to negotiate with elements of the Taliban at least, and allow them to enter into a coalition government in Kabul. By extension, such a government would be increasingly anti-American. Given the military reality on the ground, Petraeus is simply facing the obvious. The choices are fighting a war that, at best, the United States can neither lose or win; withdraw and let come what may; or deal with the Taliban as the United States dealt with the Sunnis of Iraq. On the surface, Karzai appears to be buying into this strategy, but his move may be subtler than that. The United States would be willing to work with factions of the Taliban that repudiate al Qaeda. Karzai is saying that he is prepared to work with Omar, who is not likely to repudiate al Qaeda. This can be read one of two ways. The first is that Karzai is telling Petraeus that if he brings some of the Taliban into the coalition, it is only a matter of time before they get rid of Karzai. So he is going to make his own deal with the most radical elements to protect himself. In other words, Karzai is trying to stop the Americans from moving down that path by showing where Karzai will take it. The other option, linked to the first, is that Karzai, seeing the writing on the wall, wants to become as nice as he can be to Omar, guessing that he will be visiting soon. It is not clear that Omar wants anything to do with this, and Karzai's show of independence can be taken many ways. But as U.S. operations in Iraq are slowly shut down, Afghanistan will have to be next — and Karzai is already positioning himself.

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