The Stumbling Blocks Toward Afghan Reconciliation

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Context

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Another round of trilateral meetings between Afghanistan, Pakistan and US have started. After the latest get together in Brussels last Wednesday, John Kerry commented, “It’s fair to say that there is a good feeling among all of us that we made progress in this dialogue. But we have all agreed that results are what will tell the story, not statements at a press conference.”

Speaking to the media a day earlier, Kerry had reiterated the future US role: “The mission (of US) will be to support, advise, train the Afghan military on an ongoing basis as well as to engage in counterterrorism activity.”

The success of this mission is dependent on good ties between Karzai and Islamabad, to jointly keep a tab on the extremists. The challenge being, ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan keep swinging between amicable to really tense, and Karzai’s relations with US are faced with pretty much the same unpredictability. While Pakistan is blamed for supporting Afghan Taliban, Afghanistan is now being accused of backing TTP elements.

On the one hand, Karzai keeps blaming US for civilian deaths, but on the other hand, the country wants NATO forces to stay longer. Every time Afghan Security Forces are criticized for poor performance, the nation starts blaming Pakistan for providing safe havens to Taliban. In fact, there is a danger the border skirmishes between the two countries may transform in to something larger, especially if Karzai decides to exploit the nationalistic sentiments.

Until these incongruities are addressed, progress will be hard to come by, and no matter how many players are involved, finding a common ground will be difficult.

Analysis

Interests of Karzai Regime

The basic question is what would Afghan government gain from a speedy reconciliation. The answer is not much. While US is striving for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, this will put the onus of fighting on the Afghan Security Forces. Despite the hype, doubts about the fighting capabilities of Afghan forces on its own persist. Its commitment to carry on the fight against Taliban will really be tested once NATO forces leave. The interests of Karzai government are best served by keeping NATO forces engaged while stoking up nationalism, and blaming US and Pakistan for what ails the country.

As far as Afghan Taliban are concerned, they have questioned the credibility of the Karzai government, claiming it to be a puppet of the West. At least publicly, the Taliban have even refused to talk with Karzai, who wants to control the political talks. President Karzai has also accused US of holding direct talks with Taliban, while keeping him in the dark. Furthermore, while Afghan government is insisting on keeping some level of US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban want a complete withdrawal of foreign forces.

This raises the most elementary question of all, who has the upper hand. The answer to this query is linked with the reasons why the principals to the conflict decided to seek a political solution. The anomaly being the military campaign to resolve the conflict has continued as well.

Implications for Pakistan

While Afghanistan has generally projected Pakistan as the villain in the whole affair, longer the conflict sticks around; the price for its neighbor is getting steeper by the day. Accelerated political reconciliation in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on improving the security and economic situation of the country, including regional trade. In this, the US and Pakistan’s interests are more aligned.

As the reconciliation process drags on, the responsibility for bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table may squarely fall on the shoulders of Pakistan, if it has not already, while it is also being blamed for maintaining ties with them. On the other hand, Pakistani officials have repeatedly claimed that while it can assist in bringing various warring Taliban factions to the table, the country cannot ensure a certain outcome. The challenge boils down to if Afghan Taliban think they are wining, why would they want to reconcile with Karzai, or listen to Pakistan for that matter.

American Position

Big powers have global repute to protect. Accepting weakness or failure in one part of the world, has direct implication for interests in another regions. This particular aspect has created unique challenges for both NATO and US. In addition, the assessment of Afghan policy has included what is achievable and what goals are simply beyond reach. The war there has dragged on for too long, at a huge cost, and it simply not possible economically to continue the course.

While Afghan Taliban have been difficult to manage, reports suggest the threat from Al Qaeda, in this part of the region, has been contained for the most part. This premise provides the basis for an exit strategy.

Ironically, the Afghan government may only get serious about reconciliation, if US sticks to its timeline for withdrawal. Jumpstarting the political talks may require a temporary cessation of a military campaign; with the commitment that Taliban will enter a serious dialogue with the Afghan government. The stipulation of removing foreign forces could be conditioned to Taliban terminating ties with Al Qaeda, agreeing to not attack Afghan and coalition forces, and respect other international human right conventions. In other words, an interim peace accord leading to a permanent cessation.

Conclusion

The truth is that the regional approach to Afghan conflict has now morphed into a global one. And, too many cooks, is a recipe for failure. For example, in addition to the three core parties, discussions on Afghanistan have also recently taken pace between Pakistan, India, China and Russia. The most interesting track being the India-China bilateral discussions. The latest round was held on April 18th, which stressed, “working with regional countries and the international community to help Afghanistan achieve objectives of peace and stability, independence and development.”

To think that Russia, China, and India are simply trying to help the international community, or NATO more precisely, would be naïve. The correct wording is perhaps that they are seeking to protect their own interests in Afghanistan that may or may not rhyme with the other players.

The reality is until and unless the three principals have a coordinated game plan, other players are only going to add to the confusion and paralysis, while Taliban benefit. This will also prolong and complicate the worsening law and order situation in Pakistan. If Afghan Taliban settles, this is only going to isolate the Pakistani Taliban (TTP).

The longer the conflict drags on American motives are likely to be questioned as well. Why will the US desire a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan if the situation of Middle East continues to deteriorate over Iran’s nuclear program and its support of Assad and Hezbollah?