What Did You Really Mean, Mr. Secretary?

About a week ago, I went to listen to one of my heroes, James Baker, give an interview to another one of my heroes, Evan Smith.

To my great pleasure and satisfaction, Smith asked questions mostly about US foreign policy. Baker was great at answering these questions. As I expected, he was very measured in his responses, urging members of current administration to continue with their policy of reaching out to Iran and suggesting they might try to reach out to Hamas as well. And yes, Baker is a Republican. And no, he wasn’t facetious. He even praised Obama Administration for its policies in Afghanistan. His only criticism was that Obama set a deadline for troop withdrawal and Baker thought this was a bad idea.

During the q&a section, I got to ask a question exactly about Baker’s comment on this troop withdrawal date. With my heavy Russian accent (which becomes even heavier when I’m nervous, which I was) I asked something close to this:

“Mr. Secretary, several minutes ago you criticized Obama Administration for setting a deadline for troop withdrawal. And yet we now know that several days ago, one of the most prominent insurgency leaders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sent a delegation to Kabul, to negotiate with Karzai’s government over possible reconciliation. Spokesperson for this delegation went on the record to say that this visit would have never happened had President Obama not set this deadline. How would you comment on such development?”

Baker’s answer was short and simple. He thought that these talks are actually not that important and that

“those Taliban that don’t send a delegation to Kabul, they know when we gonna start pulling out and when you are in a war it’s not a good idea, at least I don’t think, to tell your enemy that we will fight for six months and then we are leaving.”

First of all, Hezb-i-Islami, which is a rebel group and a political party headed by Hekmatyar, is not Taliban and we are not at war with Hezb-i-Islami.  And also, by condemning these talks, Baker went against everything he said prior to my question.

Just several minutes before, Baker suggested that current administration should not only continue talking to Iran but also should seriously consider reaching out to Hamas. Perhaps indirectly, similarly to the way Bush 41 reached out to PLO, but nonetheless, reach out. Baker also said, and I quote,

“I’m not one of these people who thinks you either talk to people  or you shoot at them. There is middle ground. . . And I’m not one of these people who thinks that by talking to an enemy you somehow give him something. You don’t if you know that you are doing.”

So, we can talk to an enemy. . . only not Taliban.

You know better than that, Mr. Secretary. What did you really mean?


Watch Evan Smith’s conversation with James Baker here: http://www.texastribune.org/videos/2010/mar/30/conversation-james-baker/. My question and Baker’s response are at 49:40 – 50:58.

Mohammad Daoud Abedi’s comments are available here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/world/asia/24afghan.html?ref=todayspaper. Abedi is a spokesperson for Hekmatyar’s delegation.


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