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Pakistan's Afghan peace plan leaves U.S. wary

NYT: President Obama and CIA director Leon Panetta react with skepticism about the prospects for an Afghan peace deal pushed by Pakistan between the government and Taliban militants
/ Source: The New York Times

President Obama and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency both reacted with skepticism on Sunday about the prospects for an Afghanistan peace deal pushed by Pakistan between the Afghan government and some Taliban militants.

While Mr. Obama said a political solution to the conflict was necessary and suggested elements of the Taliban insurgency could be part of negotiations, he said any such effort must be viewed with caution. The C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, was even more forceful in expressing his doubts.

“We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society,” Mr. Panetta said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Acknowledging that the American-led counterinsurgency effort was facing unexpected difficulty, Mr. Panetta said that the Taliban and their allies had little motive to contemplate a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.

“We’ve seen no evidence of that and very frankly, my view is that with regards to reconciliation, unless they’re convinced that the United States is going to win and that they’re going to be defeated, I think it’s very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that’s going to be meaningful,” he said.

Mr. Obama, speaking later after the Group of 20 meeting in Toronto, noted that as the Afghanistan war approached its 10th anniversary, it was the longest foreign war in American history, and that “ultimately as was true in Iraq, so will be true in Afghanistan, we will have to have a political solution.”

As for Pakistan’s effort to broker talks, Mr. Obama added: “I think it’s too early to tell. I think we have to view these efforts with skepticism but also with openness. The Taliban is a blend of hard-core ideologues, tribal leaders, kids that basically sign up because it’s the best job available to them. Not all of them are going to be thinking the same way about the Afghan government, about the future of Afghanistan. And so we’re going to have to sort through how these talks take place.”

The president avoided any direct comment on whether the Haqqani network, the Taliban element reportedly proposed by Pakistan as part of a deal, could become part of Afghanistan’s future leadership. But he said that “conversations between the Afghan government and the Pakistani government, building trust between those two governments, are a useful step.”

The comments Sunday were the administration’s first public response to a report of Pakistan’s deal-brokering efforts last week in The New York Times.

Mr. Panetta and Mr. Obama spoke after a major shake-up in the American military leadership, in which the president dismissed his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, replacing him with Gen. David H. Petraeus. Mr. Obama said the American strategy in Afghanistan would not change, and the Senate Armed Services Committee scheduled a confirmation hearing for General Petraeus for Tuesday.

Mr. Panetta acknowledged that the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, based in part on the deployment of 30,000 more American troops, was off to a troubled start, though he insisted it was making progress.

“It’s harder, it’s slower than I think anyone anticipated,” he said.

Mr. Panetta, who turns 72 on Monday, is a former congressman from California and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration with no intelligence background before Mr. Obama named him to head the C.I.A. early last year. But he has used his political skills and deep Washington experience to become a powerful intelligence leader.

In his ABC “This Week” appearance, Mr. Panetta reiterated the goal that Mr. Obama had set for the Afghan war: “The fundamental purpose, the mission that the president has laid out is that we have to go after Al Qaeda. We’ve got to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda and their militant allies so they never attack this country again.”

That goal helps to explain administration skepticism of Pakistan’s effort to broker reconciliation between the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and the militant Haqqani network, part of the Afghan Taliban coalition that has close ties to Al Qaeda and has been blamed for many bloody attacks.

American officials have said reconciliation with some rank-and-file Taliban fighters will most likely be necessary for peace, but they have resisted any power-sharing deal with such Afghan Taliban leaders as Sirajuddin Haqqani and his father, Jalaluddin, or with Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Mr. Karzai and Pakistani leaders believe that with the United States scheduled to begin a withdrawal next year, it makes sense to work aggressively toward a coalition that would involve elements of the Karzai government and the Taliban, both largely from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group. That has led to nervousness on the part of Tajiks and other ethnic minorities.

Mr. Panetta admitted that despite the C.I.A.’s aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas — primarily using missiles fired from drone aircraft — the hunt for Osama bin Laden had made little progress. He said the last precise information on the Qaeda leader’s whereabouts came in “the early 2000s.”

Authorities are alarmed by the recent flurry of terrorist plots and attacks aimed at the United States, Mr. Panetta said, most recently the failed car-bomb attack in Times Square on May 1. He said such plotters had included both people directed by Al Qaeda as well as “self-radicalized” militants like Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex.

Together, he said, the plotters “represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now.”

On Iran, Mr. Panetta declared publicly what officials have said privately since late last year: that the administration now believes Iran is continuing, at some low level, to work on the design of a nuclear weapon. That contradicts a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. But he also said he believed it would take Iran two years to convert its current stockpile of nuclear material into deliverable weapons.

Mr. Panetta admitted to a disagreement with Israel’s intelligence services over whether Iranian leaders had decided to produce a weapon; American intelligence believes the decision has not been made. But he said the Israelis are “willing to give us the room to be able to try to change Iran diplomatically and culturally and politically, as opposed to changing them militarily.”

He said the recently passed sanctions on Iran might “help weaken the regime,” but added: “Will it deter them from their ambitions with regard to nuclear capability? Probably not.”

David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

This article, "Pakistan's plan on Afghan peace leave U.S. wary," first appeared in The New York Times.