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Afghanistan: Did Clinton Just Say to the BBC, "Talk to the Taliban"?

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UPDATE: Credit to the BBC for getting this much out of of Clinton. NBC didn't even get close to a statement beyond pitter-patter before moving on to the fatuousness of "Are you really important, Hillary?"

You had to have sharper ears than Spock, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have snuck in a huge revelation on Afghanistan in her interview with BBC national radio this morning.

If I heard this right, the big debate in Washington --- the one delaying any notion of a "strategy", let alone confirmation of military numbers --- isn't about troop increases. It's not even, as the media are framing it, whether the US should put emphasis on attacks on Al Qa'eda "sanctuaries" in Pakistan rather than a ramped-up counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan.

No, it looks like Clinton is renewing the idea of talking to the bad guys, or at least "ex-bad guys", "minor bad guys", "not the biggest bad guys". After a few minutes of meaningless waffle to avoid being pinned down on the troop question, substance broke out (the passage  is  just after the 2:12:40 mark):
PRESENTER JOHN HUMPHREYS: You are changing the strategy, emphasising the campaigning against Al Qa'eda in Pakistan and arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan don't pose a direct threat to the United States. Is that the case?

CLINTON: No, Mr Humphreys, it isn't....We are not changing our strategy. Our strategy remains to achieve the goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qa'eda and its extremist allies and denying them safe haven and the capacity to strike us here in London or New York or anywhere else.

It is fair to say that we are doing a much more careful analysis of who actually is allied with Al Qa'eda. Not everyone who calls himself a Taliban is necessarily a threat to the UK or the United States. I think there has been to some extent inherited from our prior involvement in Afghanistan a lack of clarity because there well may be a number of people who currently are considered Taliban who are there because, frankly, they get paid to fight or because they see no alternative.

Similarly in Iraq, when we began to more carefully parse out who was really with Al Qa'eda in Iraq and who had been coerced or intimidated, we began to make real progress on the ground in developing partnerships that led to a decrease in the violence and a glide path that we are all on to turning over the security to the people of Iraq.

So I think it is important to note that we are doing is bringing to bear information and evidence that needs to be part of our thinking as we implement in the most effective manner.

The general idea of talking to some of the Taliban, trying to split them off from the insurgency, is far from new. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was floating this in the final months of the Bush Administration. Clinton's Iraq analogy, however, takes this to a different level. In that case, the US military were not just talking (and giving significant amounts of cash) to "minor" members. They were talking to Sunni leaders to convince them that Al Qa'eda, not the US military, were the foe.

Since there is no Al Qa'eda in Afghanistan, Clinton's comparison confuses rathers than illuminates. With whom will the US military or US civilian officials or the Afghan Government be conversing? And who will they be putting as the "proper" target for these former enemies? Is the Secretary of State just talking about a "tactical" approach to break up groups of Taliban or is there a "strategic" approach considering a broad political settlement?

Unfortunately, the BBC's Humphries was so fixated with the narrative of the battle within Washington over troop levels that he did not follow up Clinton's statement. So the intriguing possibility --- that it's the politics that is preoccupying the Obama Administration and not the boots on the grounds --- goes unnoticed.

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