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How US presidential politics gives leverage to the Taliban, Iran

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In a United States presidential election year, peace talks can take on a life and a direction of their own.

As President Barack Obama pushes for peace talks with the Taliban, ahead of an expected withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, he may keep in mind these two past scenarios, when election-year peace talks went astray:

  • In May 1968, President Lyndon Johnson's administration began three-way peace talks with North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the US. As the election campaign progressed, South Vietnam began to balk at signing a deal, and by Dec. 9 the talks stopped entirely. Pointing to reported secret meetings between South Vietnamese negotiators and a deputy of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, President Johnson privately fumed over Nixon’s “treason.” Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, lost the election to Nixon.
  • In 1980, during President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, negotiations with Iranian student hostage takers broke down, shortly after a reported meeting between a well-connected Iranian cleric and William Casey, a campaign functionary for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Negotiations restarted after Mr. Reagan won the election and were concluded by Mr. Carter’s team at 8:04 a.m. on Reagan’s inauguration day. In his 1991 book, “October Surprise,” Carter official Gary Sick, now a professor at Columbia University, charged that Casey encouraged the Iranians to stall the release of the hostages to deny Carter the symbolic victory of a negotiated hostage release.  

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