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Old Tuesday, January 17, 2012
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Default The path to 2014 and beyond

Dr Maleeha Lodhi
Tuesday, January 17, 2012


The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

In 2009 Britain’s then Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously said that his country’s war effort in Afghanistan “was to keep Britain’s streets safe” from terrorism. That disingenuous claim served as a rationale for the military involvement at a time when public support for it began to plummet in his country as indeed in other Western nations.

A new book published in the UK now turns that self-serving narrative on its head. One of its chapters correctly concludes that the planned departure of American and British forces from Afghanistan and a less visible security presence in the region will in fact reduce the threat of terrorism in the West.

The study ‘Afghanistan: To 2015 and Beyond’ by one of the world’s most influential think tanks features a dozen experts and researchers from the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). The volume examines the challenges on the path to the 2014 transition when responsibility for security, governance and development will be handed over by Nato countries to the Afghan government.

Its outlook on how this will pan out reflects conditional optimism. The main finding is that Afghanistan faces an arduous transition but not one that is doomed to failure. The country will not rapidly descend into civil war and instead make slow if patchy progress towards stability.

Many would regard its principal conclusion to rest on rather tenuous assumptions. The volume argues that Kabul will prevail and the centre will hold because “the central government has probably amassed sufficient power” to ensure this as well as progress achieved in building the Afghan National Army. This prognosis is challenged by some of the analysis in the book especially that dealing with Afghanistan’s political problems.

A surprising shortcoming of the book is the lack of attention given to efforts and prospects for a political settlement, on which any transition realistically rests. It is the non-military strategy that will decisively determine the outcome of endeavours to stabilise Afghanistan before and after 2014.

For over a year international consensus has congealed around the idea that only a negotiated settlement involving talks with the Taliban can end the decade long war. Interestingly the book’s launch coincided with a flurry of diplomatic activity geared to paving the way for formal talks between the US and Taliban representatives. This has been revealed in media reports based on briefings from the Obama administration about the possible opening of a Taliban office in Qatar to set the stage for negotiations.

The IISS book gives inadequate consideration to the issue of peace talks and how the move to a political strategy from a kinetic one is an essential pillar for progress for the 2014 transition. Several chapters do refer to a political settlement but mostly in passing and in no great depth. The chapter on ‘Domestic Politics and State-Building’ discusses this but rather cursorily and only in terms of barriers to substantive peace talks. In an otherwise insightful analysis Toby Dodge deals with Afghan reconciliation as one of five political problems facing the country and persuasively argues that future stability will depend on the possibilities of finding solutions to these.

But absent in this or any other chapter in the 270-page study is detailed exploration of the process of Afghan reconciliation and appraisal of what peace making should or will entail. The book would have been more comprehensive if it had devoted at least a separate chapter to what might well be the defining path to 2014 – the political track of negotiations. The American approach now sees such talks as a critical component of the draw-down process.

What would have added value to the volume was if it had assessed how US policy evolved towards accommodation and reaching out to Taliban leaders. This was reflected in the several ‘contacts’ that American officials had with Taliban representatives in 2011. This potentially game changing part of the Afghan endgame has seen many a shift and turn. From a no-dialogue posture to one that initially only called for re-integration of the insurgency’s foot soldiers, Washington’s position underwent substantive change. First came the conditional willingness to talk to ‘reconcilable’ Taliban members. This developed into the present stance, which aims at ‘inclusive’ talks and is signalled by the ongoing efforts to fashion a formal peace process involving mutual confidence measures and a Taliban political office.

US recalibration of Afghan strategy over the past year or more made it clear that Washington no longer sought or could secure a military victory in Afghanistan. Top administration officials began to say that the war would have to be ended by negotiations. But it wasn’t until a landmark speech by Hilary Clinton in February 2011 that the US modified the terms for peace talks. This address marked a significant policy shift. Clinton publicly affirmed that what were previously three pre-conditions for talks with the Taliban were outcomes that the US sought to accomplish from negotiations. These three objectives were: renunciation of violence, breaking off ties with Al-Qaeda and acceptance of the Afghan constitution.

The book’s lack of focus on these important developments is also reflected in its prescriptions for western policy. Three are identified. Continued and substantial western aid to Afghanistan, military and civilian training and ‘muscular regional diplomacy’. Missing is what the Obama administration is now seeking to build momentum towards – talks for a political settlement. A senior American official recently stated: “Reconciliation is the most important pillar of our effort” to the 2014 transition.

The book is also behind the curve on another important count. It does not mention much less explore the regional implications of the long-term partnership agreement being negotiated between Washington and Kabul. Although the contents of these negotiations have not been made public enough is known about them to have merited an appraisal.

The aim of this agreement is to provide for a US military presence beyond 2014 with access to several bases in Afghanistan. This residual American force is expected to comprise a) trainers/advisers b) a counter terrorism capability and c) support personnel for the intelligence apparatus. A pivotal question the book should have addressed is whether such an arrangement will help or hinder peace talks and consolidate or erode a fragile regional consensus.

Despite these gaps the book is a valuable addition to the growing literature on the future of Afghanistan. The section on ‘Strategic Geography’ is excellent. Dana Allin’s chapter on US policy includes a useful discussion of what he calls the emerging Obama doctrine of “ muscular but more narrowly focused pursuit of American interests.” That doctrine he writes reflects Obama’s “apparent conviction that the United States has become strategically overextended, and needs a process of managed retrenchment...to achieve an economic restoration at home.”

Half the book’s chapters deal with Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours and illuminate the competing interests and dynamics at work. They are a useful reminder of the regional obstacles that have to be overcome on the difficult course to Afghan stability. The verdict is a hopeful one – that these strategic circles can be squared because the regional states appear to have learnt from the past.

Nigel Inkster’s chapter on the international and regional terrorist threat is insightful even if one does not agree with some of his observations. His conclusions are especially note-worthy. One of them is this: “ Over time, a reduced US presence – whether military in Afghanistan or CIA in Pakistan – represents the best option for lowering the temperature and creating circumstances in which the countries of the region can best address the threats they face from militancy.” But transitioning to this, he argues, requires US policymakers to assume “a different calculus of risk in respect of terrorism, and to accept that whatever the degree of US presence in the region, some ‘residual threat’ will continue for the foreseeable future.
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Old Tuesday, January 17, 2012
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Default The Qatar breakthrough on Afghanistan

Rahimullah Yusufzai
Tuesday, January 17, 2012


The ground realities and pragmatism seem to have persuaded the two major parties to the Afghan conflict to talk to each other. The Taliban and the United States may agree to disagree and keep fighting while talking, but the fact that they are finally negotiating is a breakthrough that was unimaginable sometime ago.

The Taliban used to insist they would not talk to anyone until the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, but now they are involved in secret peace talks with the US. On the other hand, Washington had demonised the Taliban to the extent that many believed the Americans would never talk to Mulla Mohammad Omar and his men. Talking to them would have meant going back on an oft-repeated US policy that required the Taliban to meet certain conditions before becoming eligible to being a credible negotiating partner. That is now a thing of the past, with American officials led by Marc Grossman, the special envoy of President Barack Obama for Afghanistan and Pakistan, are meeting and talking with the Taliban face to face in Qatar and Germany.

In fact, the two sides have been holding secret talks for several months and at the same time denying that they were talking. This isn’t something new, even if it is unprincipled, because that is how most conflicts have been resolved.

To give peace a chance, combatants often set aside their past policies, don’t allow ego to come in the way of adopting realistic positions and agree to talk to adversaries. This is pragmatism, and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked, you don’t hold peace talks with friends; you need to talk to enemies, directly or through intermediaries.

It is true the Taliban and the Americans have fought and killed each other and still hate one another. The Americans refer to the Taliban as terrorists and the Taliban consider the US as the biggest terrorist state in the world. Still they have found a match in each other for the purposes of both talking and fighting.

An evidence of the intense hatred the two parties have for each other emerged recently when a video in which four US soldiers were urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters was circulated on the internet. It caused an outrage and exposed US claims that its military was disciplined and followed certain principles and values. Even those Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, whose fate is tied to the US because they side with it in the war against the Taliban, felt outraged by the sight of the urinating American soldiers and strongly condemned the act. The Taliban, on the basis of their newfound pragmatism, came up with a reassuring statement that the incident won’t prompt them to stop talking to the US.

The Taliban know it wasn’t the first time the US and Nato soldiers had done something inhuman and abominable, and it won’t be the last. They too on occasions have committed human rights violations and could do so again, because the Afghan conflict has become increasingly brutal and no side could be held accountable.

If it were within their power, the Americans would have killed every Taliban fighter in sight. Or they would have bought those willing to lay down arms. They couldn’t despite all their power and that of their resourceful allies and are therefore willing to talk to the enemy. The Taliban too have suffered enormous casualties and it cannot be easy recruiting new fighters and replacing fallen commanders. They have thus decided to try and achieve some of their objectives through peaceful means. They haven’t given up the option of fighting as that is what they do best, and they could stop talking if there is no major breakthrough or it damages their cause.

It was on Jan 4 that the Taliban finally conceded that they had held talks with the government of Qatar and “other concerned parties” and announced their willingness to open a political office in Doha to facilitate contacts with the international community. The “other concerned parties” weren’t identified but these were obviously the US and Germany. In fact, it was the underrated German intelligence which managed to make the first contact with the Taliban and facilitated the subsequent talks. The Germans are, therefore, now part of the talks.

The Taliban’s immediate interest in talking to the US is to secure the release of their men through a prisoners’ swap. It is the main topic of their discussion and the peace process won’t move forward unless the Taliban secure the release of their prisoners, particularly five of their commanders held at the infamous detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, and the US manages to win freedom for its soldier Bowe Bergadahl, who was captured by the Taliban fighters two-and-a-half years ago. The five men the Taliban want freed are their former army chief Mulla Fazil Akhund, their interior minister Khairullah Khairkhwa, deputy intelligence chief Abdul Haq Waseeq, ex-governor of Balkh province Noorullah Noori and military commander Mohammad Nabi.

Both sides have attached top priority to securing the release of their prisoners. The Taliban leaders appear to be under pressure from the families and friends of Taliban prisoners to try and secure their release. In July 2011 the Nato military authorities in Afghanistan too had declared that winning freedom for Bowe Bergdahl was their top priority.

The Taliban were insisting not long ago that they don’t need an office in a third country and would prefer operating from Afghanistan. They had declined an offer by Turkey, backed by Afghanistan and Pakistan, to host a Taliban office on its soil. Suggestions of a Taliban office in Dubai, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both being the preferred choice of President Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered government, and Turkmenistan were also rejected. The tiny Gulf state of Qatar was chosen as both the Taliban and the US trusted its government.

The Taliban had their way when they prevailed upon the US to have bilateral, without involving the Afghan government. They made it clear that the two basic parties to the 10-year old Afghan conflict were the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the US and its Western allies. The Afghan government wasn’t even mentioned, in line with the Taliban argument that it was powerless and illegitimate.

No wonder, then, that President Karzai was furious. He complained that his government wasn’t consulted by the US while holding talks with Taliban and allowing them to open an office in Qatar. His foreign minister, Zalmay Rasul, argued that the Taliban office didn’t mean they were being given political representation. Eventually, the Karzai government had no option but to back the Qatar initiative. Karzai knew his limitation and had to go along with the decisions made by the US. It is one thing arguing that the peace process must be Afghan-led, preferably by the Karzai government, but quite another that Kabul cannot do much on its own in the context of waging war and achieving peace without help from the US and its Nato allies. Besides, it was Karzai’s demand that the Taliban need to have an address so that their true representatives could be approached for talks. He cannot oppose the move now for the Taliban to have an address, their own office in Qatar.

The Taliban office in Qatar hasn’t opened yet, but that would be a formality because their chief negotiator, Tayyab Agha, who is Mulla Omar’s brother-in-law and was for a while his spokesman, and some other Taliban officials have been informally operating out of the Qatari capital for some months now.

Pakistan has been somewhat sidelined in the process, but it is not out of the game. The ISI chief, Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, was recently in Qatar to meet US officials and the issue of the proposed Taliban office there must have come up in the talks. The Taliban realise that they cannot ignore Pakistan and would not like to annoy it, even if they seek more independence, and less interference by Islamabad in their decision-making. More importantly, the talks have just started and hurdles will come up at every stage and Pakistan’s help in such situations would be critical.
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