Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3
Afghanistan: Peace still a distant dream
Every war has to end with talks and negotiations. Afghans need
peace like Oxygen.
- Shukria Barakzai, Member of the Afghan Parliament
The war in Afghanistan has been against the wrong enemy in the wrong country.
- Richard Hollbrooke
Everybody; all the stake holders in Afghanistan are ostensibly agreed that there can be no military solution and a regional framework may provide the best solution once intra-Afghan talks make headway. The only sensible strategic approach had to be political. Insurgencies rarely end satisfactorily without a political deal except that Afghanistan is full of complexities and contradictions where nobody trusts anybody else. Even the major foreign players are often functioning at cross purposes, hedging their bets and clinging to whatever partners and proxies they may have in Afghanistan. Russia, Iran and India who have had links with the Northern Alliance in the past are less than enthusiastic’ about talks with the Taliban whereas Pakistan and China favour a dialogue as does the West.
2. In a sense the West is trying to replicate or make amends for what it missed out in 2001 by not either ‘finishing’ the Taliban nor including it in the Bonn process which is now perceived as a victors’ conference. Talks even about talks is a step forward but Afghanistan with all its complexities is still as far away from peace as it was in 2001. The only redeeming feature today is that the Taliban is not the force it was in the early 1990s when it overran Kabul to assume power in 1996. Insurgents normally have a life span of ten years so that if the US has had to suffer the longest war in its history the Taliban leadership including the Amir-e-Momin have also aged and, perhaps, more ready for reconciliation.
3. The irony is that the government of President Hamid Karzai which assumed office in 2001 amidst euphoria of the overthrow of the Taliban regime is now being asked by the US, which engineered the overthrow, to accommodate the same outfit to help smoothen the political process and not withdrawal of international forces. With less than two years to go before the scheduled withdrawal, all the aces are not surprisingly in the Taliban hand.
4. This state of play is directly attributable to an abject failure of the western countries to strengthen the system of governance in the country. Having enthroned Karzai, they have throughout the past decade insisted on direct delivery of developmental activities on the ground that the Afghan government lacked the necessary mechanism to do so and was too deep into corruption to be trusted. Karzai has, therefore, had to survive primarily due to the endorsement from the West and an intricate system of patronage to former ethnic warlords, tribal chiefs, crime syndicates and a variety of other economic mafia.
5. The Taliban has also no doubt survived largely intact due to the fact that its entire top leadership was provided safe haven in Pakistan. Pak agencies have very deftly deflated pressure on this score over the past ten years by periodically handing over non-Afghan, and primarily AI Qaeda leaders, to the US as evidence of their sincerity. After the focus shifted back to Afghanistan from Iraq in 2008, they have also placated the US by turning a blind eye to CIA drone strikes which have led to the depletion of the so called foreign fighters in addition to elements of the Pakistani Taliban which have been reluctant to heed the Pak Army’s wishes.
6. It is in this context that there have been reports in the past six months of contacts between the US and the Taliban. These contacts fit nicely into’ the scheme of things of three main protagonists in the Afghan theatre. The US is seeking progress on the political front to strengthen its case for withdrawal in an election year, the Taliban needs to avoid time until the coalition forces complete their draw down in 2014 and the Karzai government, which has been seriously dented by high profile attacks by the Taliban on sensitive targets in Kabul, needs to put up progress on the security front as an achievement to the people who have had very little cheer from the government in the past decade.
7. Given this cynical background, questions are being raised about the resilience of the process and the end objectives of each of these players. The Taliban is obviously intent on securing through the talks with the US, international legitimacy denied to it pre-2001. While doing so, it has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons in Afghanistan by systematically undermining Karzai by eliminating his close aides including his brother Ahmed Wali who was critical for his management of the Pashtun tribes, and selective elimination of minority leaders, such as former President Rabbani. The minority Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras who have in the past been a major source of support for the Karzai government, have now turned on him for having failed to provide security for their people in the face of a resurgent Taliban.
8. Karzai, who is a shrewd politician and realizes that the inevitable outcome of the political process would be a sharing of space with Taliban at the very least, is set upon undermining it. He has objected to Qatar as a venue of talks; release of Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay sought as a pre-condition by Taliban; provoked Pakistan; and has periodically lashed out at the Americans. The thrust of his contention seems to be that he is being kept out of the process. This, in all likelihood, is intended to pave the way for him to dissociate from the process should it begin to falter.
9. In the meantime Karzai has asserted that he had opened talks with the Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Given his aversion to Qatar, Karzai has also claimed that he had opened a direct line to the Taliban via Riyadh. Curiously this may not be opposed by Pakistan which is crucial in any forward movement with the Taliban with all its top leadership still in refuge in Pakistan. But it may not be acceptable to the Taliban. Mullah Omar may one day be prepared to talk to the Americans but would never agree to talk to Karzai.ln the Taliban thinking Karzai could at best be tolerated till 2014 after which he had no role. Karzai for his part understands that if he is bypassed in talks his plight would be no better than Babrak Karmal at the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
10. So while the US says ultimately talks with the Taliban must be held directly by the Afghan Government they are willing to negotiate for the dialogue to make headway for them to be able to withdraw honourably from Afghanistan. Most of the spadework in this regard has been done for the Americans by the German intelligence agency who have been meeting with Agha Tyab, brother-in-law and close confidant of Mullah Omar leading to a meeting with the US Envoy Marc Grossman in Doha in October. Whether or not the Taliban is sincere about talks or this is only a tactical ploy to secure the release of their leaders detained in Guantanamo Bay, only time will tell. But how desperate the Americans are for dialogue is borne out by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s statement when she said, "the reality is that one never has the luxury to talk to friends - if you’re sitting across the table discussing resolution to a conflict, you’re sitting across from people who by definition you don’t agree with and may have been to battle with."
11. The Americans, who have suffered around 1900 casualties in the past 10 years besides a bill of around US $700 billion, appears to be quite resigned to leave Afghanistan with a slightly lesser mess than they inherited from the Taliban in 2001. Their conclusion seems to be that the ill-trained, indisciplined and ethnically fractured Afghan Army and police forces would be able to hold on for long enough for them to once again declare "mission accomplished." The show window would of course be the daring raid deep inside a nuclear capable Pakistan by handful of American commandos to eliminate the enemy number one.
12. So where does that leave us; not particularly happy either with the US withdrawal or the talks with the Taliban because as with the Soviet withdrawal we may be left to bear the brunt of the remnants of .terror in the region. Over dependence on the Americans or in recent "times on Karzai is coming home to roost. That we have vital stakes in Afghanistan and our presence there has been nothing but benign is irrefutable but in a rapidly changing scenario just our recent strategic partnership with Afghanistan may not suffice. Already it has caused considerable consternation in Pakistan. And while we may not be able to cooperate and nor do we need to be in Afghanistan there is still no harm in allaying Pakistan’s apprehensions of so-called encirclement. Even if we do not cooperate in Afghanistan, there is no reason for it to become another Indo-Pak flashpoint. It may also not be a bad idea including Afghanistan in the India-Pak dialogue. At the same time, it may be worth considering more seriously what the Taliban has been saying ever since 1996 that it would like friendly relations with all countries without unduly favouring anyone.
13. At this point of time, not surprisingly, the Taliban are careful to market their military campaign as anything but a civil war. But as Rodric Braithwaite in his book ‘Afghantsy’ suggests the strategy of Soviet Russia’s failed attempt to stabilize Afghanistan are too many and too close for comfort.