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Deep flaws in Afghan peace drive

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By M K Bhadrakumar
Asia Times Online / September 15, 2007

This might look like the finest hour in the foreign-policy record of the George W Bush administration. Officials from Washington are camping in the leafy US Embassy compound in Islamabad, painstakingly putting together a new power structure for Pakistan.

Yet the international community doesn’t say a word about “unilateralism” or international law or interventionism. It is hard to imagine we are living in a “multipolar” world. What is unfolding in Pakistan could have been enacted in any of the banana republics in Latin America in which US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte served as ambassador in the Cold War.

A former prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) is kidnapped in broad daylight in his country’s capital by the authorities, put on a plane and handed over to a notoriously authoritarian regime (Saudi Arabia) that practices sharia law.

Another former prime minister (Benazir Bhutto) is meanwhile standing in the queue, marking time abroad, giving an endless stream of television interviews, waiting for the nod from Washington to return to Pakistan, willing to serve for as long as the US mentors desire. A general (President Pervez Musharraf) in his labyrinth is getting ready in his uniform to enter a civilian, loveless marriage in Islamabad, because that’s what Washington wants.

Yet regional powers show no interest in taking note of the enormous groundswell of Pakistani public opinion desperately desiring a “regime change” in their hapless country. The regional powers are inclined to accept that democracy should take a back seat in the current circumstances in the overall interest of “regional stability”. They are disinclined to react to the highly intrusive role being played by the United States, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The Taliban the net gainers

They are myopic in their vision insofar as a dangerous turning point has been reached in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The impact of the crisis in Pakistan will be most keenly felt in Afghanistan. It may appear at first glance that Afghanistan stands to gain from the prevailing pandemonium in Pakistan. Afghanistan looks deceptively calm. It seems to watch with a brooding intensity the furious pace of events in Pakistan. There is already a certain slackening of the Taliban offensive.

Meanwhile, the sense of urgency is palpable in Washington somehow to seek a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan. Battle fatigue is setting in among the coalition forces in Afghanistan. It has been crystal-clear that the operations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are going nowhere. There is growing frustration that peace is nowhere on the horizon. The 50,000-strong NATO contingent is failing in its mission to rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Among the coalition forces, there is a growing difference of opinion over tactics and deployment.

The new British government has reportedly told the US administration that in Afghanistan, the coalition forces are “winning the battles but losing the war”. Among the Afghans, too, there is a growing sense of despondency about NATO’s war strategy.

Last week, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah said the gap between the Afghan government and the people is widening. Growing insecurity, government inefficiency and incompetence, and the absence of any development have combined to generate a mood of popular disillusion. “Today, from what I hear from the people, it is something like they are losing hope,” Abdullah said.

Thus, all things taken into account, Washington is gearing up for the endgame – politically engaging the Taliban. Quite obviously, the processes set in motion at the Afghan jirga (council) last month in the direction of accommodating the Taliban in political terms are now being speeded up. It was clear from the outset that the jirga took place with the full blessings of the US. (See Afghanistan’s ball back in Pakistan’s court, Asia Times Online, August 18.)

Most important, Washington seems to have bought Musharraf’s argument that the Taliban’s accommodation at present will benefit his political consolidation, which in turn will stabilize the situation in Pakistan. Conceivably, Musharraf estimates that he will have something to show to the Islamic parties in Pakistan by way of an “achievement”.

As things stand, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jamiat-i Ulema-i Islam (Deobandi party that conceived the Taliban in the early 1990s), is more than willing to collaborate with Musharraf in the Pakistani political scene. Musharraf is badly in need of political allies like him. A split among the Islamic parties would suit Musharraf, as it might help isolate supporters of Sharif.

Apart from the “tactical” considerations (which are of course an obsessive passion for Musharraf at all times), the general would argue that bonhomie with the Islamic parties also carries security implications. It is hoped that the Taliban’s accommodation will make easier the task to contain and eliminate the international jihadist groups operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The US seems to have more or less brought on board the important Afghan anti-Taliban erstwhile Northern Alliance groups, too. Musharraf also has been reaching out to these groups. Former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani suggested at a seminar in Peshawar, Pakistan, last week that negotiations should be held with all Afghan factions, including the Taliban and the Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Rabbani said, “The Taliban should be given representation in the sub-jirga formed in line with the declaration of the joint Afghanistan-Pakistan peace jirga last month.”

This has been a remarkable turnaround for the ethnic-Tajik Rabbani to make – ironically, on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the former leader of the Northern Alliance, of which Rabbani was a part. But then Rabbani is notorious for his fickle-mindedness, especially when he is led to believe that he is within sight of power and yet another leadership role. Afghan President Hamid Karzai promptly seized Rabbani’s proposal to offer talks with the Taliban. Karzai says he also proposes to bring his estranged former foreign minister Abdullah, another key figure in the Northern Alliance, back into government.

Certainty of chance

A Taliban spokesman has since responded to Karzai’s offer. He has been quoted as saying, “For the sake of national interests … we are fully ready for talks with the government. Whenever the government formally asks for negotiations, we are ready.” He offered that Taliban would be willing for high-level representation at

the talks with the government. He has spoken of minimal “preconditions”, which would, presumably, relate to an assurance from the US that the Taliban who show up from their hideouts for reconciliation wouldn’t be arrested and dispatched to Guantanamo Bay.

Thus, as the surrealists would say, the certainty of chance is that an “intra-Afghan dialogue” is finally getting under way. A sure sign is that the United Nations has also gotten into the act. The UN secretary general’s special envoy, Tom Koenigs, has voiced support for talks with the Taliban. Koenigs told a German daily, “So far many have said we do not negotiate with terrorists, meaning also the Taliban. However, the Taliban movement is multi-faceted. You cannot lump all of them together.”

Last month, a German government spokesman, Thomas Steg, hinted at possible talks with “moderate and reasonable” Taliban elements. Koenigs has since appealed for a total cessation of violence across Afghanistan on September 21 to mark International Day of Peace. He claimed, “The response has been vast, and it continues to grow. Help us make peace in Afghanistan real.”

When asked about these trends on Tuesday at a Kabul press conference, the visiting Negroponte wasn’t dismissive about the Taliban’s offer of talks. Nor did he mention the fact that the Taliban are a “terrorist” outfit under US law and Washington wouldn’t negotiate with it.

Instead, he said, “We would want to know the view of the government of Afghanistan. Whatever happens, these talks by the Taliban should be handled in such a way by the government of Afghanistan that it does not in any way undermine or prejudice all the important political, social and economic accomplishments that have occurred in this country.”

On the face of it, an “intra-Afghan dialogue” has been an imperative need all along. But the question today is, can this be made to stick at a time when the situation in Pakistan itself is fast spinning out of anybody’s control? The crisis in Pakistan is still unfolding and an increasingly destabilizing situation is developing. And we seem to forget that Pakistan has nuclear weapons; for the first time, it seems within the realms of possibility that these nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of the Islamic militants.

The focus today ought to be on an “intra-Pakistani dialogue”. Veteran Russian “Orientalist”, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, recently wrote, “It seems to me that Washington, which is currently preoccupied with deploying its military units and missile defense elements in the newly admitted NATO member countries, could miss the boat in Pakistan … Is it not time for the US to start consultations with Russia, India and China regarding Pakistan?”

Misgivings in Moscow

The Taliban’s political rehabilitation at this juncture is certain to cause disquiet among regional powers. Iran’s resistance to the Taliban would seem to be the hardest to overcome. Everything depends on the United States’ hostility toward Iran. If the US-Iran standoff erupts in a military confrontation, that is bound to have its reverberations in Afghanistan.

The new head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Muhammad Ali Jaafari, said this week, “The Revolutionary Guards have identified all the weak points of the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and based on this have consolidated the defensive capabilities of our country. And if the enemy [US] wants to take any impudent action, Iran will for sure give a decisive and teeth-breaking response.”

Russia and the Central Asian countries would be particularly concerned. They have consistently seen a connection between Islamic extremism in Central Asia and the Caucasus and the Taliban. Chechen Internet sites even today glorify the Taliban. It is an established fact that Uzbek extremists are engaged in the fighting in Afghanistan.

Russia and the Central Asian states would worry that once the radical movement is allowed entry into mainstream political life, Afghanistan could get “Talibanized”. The ground reality is that the Taliban today are by far the best-organized force in Afghanistan. They could easily eclipse other groups and establish their dominance.

From Moscow’s point of view, such fears will surely push Russia and Central Asian countries closer together. They will look for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to provide a defense line against any threat of creeping “Talibanization” across the Amu Darya. But they would in essence be getting back to the situation prevailing in the 1999-2000 period, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russia resents that the US has been arbitrarily proceeding with imposing an Afghan settlement without any regional consultation, even though the US (and NATO) involvement is under the fig leaf of relevant United Nations resolutions. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s major survey on foreign policy in March singled out that an objective basis existed “for arriving at an agreed option of de-monopolization of the political settlement in the country, and at the enlistment of all Afghanistan’s neighbors without exception in it”.

The survey recommended, “Regional organizations, including the CSTO and the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization], can play a positive role in stabilizing the situation around Afghanistan, in combating the terrorist and narcotic threats, and in forging real cooperation with that country. It is useful to forge their interaction with other international organizations [read NATO], especially those engaged in the Afghan sector.”

To be sure, Taliban dominance of Afghanistan remains a specter that haunts Moscow. Russian commentators have warned about the futility of summarily re-establishing Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan. In the Russian view, the nationality question is not unsolvable but it must be given time, since the non-Pashtun minorities that have tasted power in recent years will be reluctant to yield ground to the Taliban.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said in a newspaper interview in July, “It is not in our interests that the Taliban re-establish control of the country, the more so since that would threaten other countries with instability.”

Russia projects its concern in essence in terms of self-defense. But the bottom line is that Russia wants to have a role in Afghanistan. Russia certainly wouldn’t want to take its troops back into Afghanistan. But Russia would like the US (and the West) to make use of “Moscow’s experience in Afghanistan” (to quote Primakov).

China and India watching

Compared with the complex Russian position, which also involves NATO’s global role, China appears to have taken a focused, limited but clear-cut stance. Recently, the People’s Daily ran a commentary titled “Taliban phenomenon a grave concern” by Fu

Xiaoqing of the China Institute of Contemporary Relations. It underlined that the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan is a matter of grave concern to the region. “Afghanistan [is] at the risk of becoming another Iraq,” it warned.

Interestingly, the commentary acknowledged that “no other political force not backed by the US can match” the Taliban, and that the Taliban challenge has to be resolutely met through a combination of military means with progress in political and economic reconstruction.

Broadly, India’s stance should be close to the Chinese and Russian positions. However, what increasingly distinguishes the Indian stance on various regional issues is New Delhi’s anxiety to harmonize its position with US regional policies. Unfortunately, Indian spokesmen seem to take their cue from Washington while pronouncing on Pakistani developments. If Washington says the worst is over for Musharraf, so be it; George W Bush should know best, after all, since he is the “friendliest” US president that 60-year-old independent India ever got acquainted with.

India has nonetheless traditionally taken a clear-cut stance of irreconcilable opposition to the Taliban. The Indian leadership has repeatedly described “moderate Taliban” as an oxymoron. Indian statements used to describe the Taliban as forces of darkness and obscurantism. This was so as recently as the Group of Eight summit in Germany in July.

The main problem is, within the first circle of the Indian strategic community, there is a propensity to take a cynical view of the Pakistani crisis in terms of India’s limited gains in the short term. The fact is, Musharraf has been a good thing to happen. He virtually changed the text of the India-Pakistan dialogue for the first time in a long while after Ayub Khan ruled Pakistan in the 1950s. It almost seemed a real possibility that there could be a settlement over disputed Kashmir without a formal India-Pakistan accord.

Besides, Pakistan is passing through its crisis at a time when India too is sliding toward internal political convulsions. The minority government in Delhi seems to have prioritized that it must somehow stay in power until next April at a minimum and the end 2008 if possible, and then seek a renewed mandate.

The controversy over the India-US nuclear deal has made Indian more argumentative than ever. Unfortunately, the government’s brinkmanship in pushing the deal through in the face of majority opposition in Parliament has made the country a divided house.

In such a situation of political fluidity within India, it is only natural if Delhi feels comfortable with Musharraf in power in Islamabad. But having said that, and despite the self-restraints Delhi is putting on its foreign-policy orientations to bring them in line with the so-called “strategic partnership” with Washington, deep down, thoughtful people in New Delhi harbor a sense of disquiet about the current US-Pakistani drive to engage the Taliban for political accommodation. Equally, there will be a certain degree of nervousness as to how, once Islamabad regains its influence in Kabul, India could retain the political space that it managed to create for itself in Afghanistan in the past five to six years.

Ultimately, hardcore Indian security experts are rooted in the belief that the Taliban are entirely the creation of Pakistani intelligence and the US would be naive to play into the hands of Islamabad by accommodating the Taliban. They are inclined to anticipate in terms of their basic professional instincts that sooner or later, Pakistan will resume its robust attempts to establish the Taliban in a position of dominance in the power structure in Kabul.

They are aware that the possibility is very remote, almost non-existent, that another anti-Taliban resistance alliance could be put together in Afghanistan if the Taliban try to seize power in the downstream. The regional policies and priorities of the principal protagonists of the erstwhile Northern Alliance – Russia, Iran and India – are no longer the same as they used to be in the late 1990s. There is growing disharmony among the three powers on issues of regional security, and, alas, there is no attempt to arrest the slide either.

The bases are heavily loaded against making peace with the Taliban. Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid drew a frightening picture in an article in the London Telegraph on Monday. He wrote that Pakistan is a failing state hovering over the abyss, and “there are too many loose ends to tie up … There is the crumbling morale in the army … Soldiers in the badlands controlled by the Taliban and al-Qaeda are deserting or are refusing to open fire … So the Pakistani state is one by one shedding its legal-constitutional, Islamic, democratic and national legitimacy.”

Clearly, the continued disintegration of the Pakistani state widens al-Qaeda’s support base among the Taliban. If US-Iran tensions escalate, the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan become intertwined. That means the Afghan war may take a new form rather than lead to peace.

All things point against Washington making a political deal with the Taliban at this juncture. But Washington seems keen to press ahead. The viceroys from Washington who descended on the Pakistani capital this week seem to carry the brief that an Afghan settlement must be somehow made to happen. The power and glory of US might demand it.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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Written by afghandevnews

September 15, 2007 at 1:22 am

Posted in Governance

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