Conflicting perceptions of stakeholders in Afghanistan
Few thousands fighters under Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar have been fighting the occupation forces and ANSF for twelve years. The resistance forces consider ANSF and ruling regime led by Karzai as collaborators while the latter view the Taliban as extremists and anti-democratic. The US punished them for collaborating with Al-Qaeda. Failing to defeat the Taliban, US installed Karzai regime now wants to patch up and enter into peace negotiations to end the war and arrive at a political settlement. Karzai offered them share in power but the Taliban having gained an edge over ISAF-ANA combine after a prolonged struggle are not prepared to agree to US dictated peace plan which envisages laying down arms, detachment from Al-Qaeda and adherence to US drafted constitution and democracy. They are resilient fighters as well as tough negotiators.
When the US and its allies failed to impose a military solution, and its sinister plan to pitch Taliban against Al-Qaeda, or to divide Taliban by categorizing them as good and bad Taliban and making them fight against each other also failed, and morale of ISAF troops started sinking because of prolonged stay in battle zone, home sickness, rising battle casualties, suicide cases and psychiatric problems, and US economy and prestige kept sliding down, Obama was left with no other option but to take the strategic decision to exit. The US decided to negotiate with the same lot declared as bad and irreconcilable since it wanted peaceful conditions for smooth transition.
Pakistan which till recent had been pressed by USA to do more to eliminate terrorism is now being pressured to do more to restore peace. Under both set of circumstances, the US put the onus of blame on Pakistan that it was not doing enough. It has so far not uttered a word of appreciation that Pakistan’s preference for political negotiations over use of force from the very outset was principled and correct and unlike others, Pakistan never resorted to double game to let down its allies. The US has so far not admitted that it had been wrongly ridiculing and maligning Pakistan. To top it all, the US warned Pakistan that it will cut off economic and military assistance if it accepted TTP offer of peace talks. As a late thought, this has now been negated.
Apparently, there is a noticeable change in the behavior of USA. It has been secretly negotiating with Taliban indirectly and directly since 2010 to arrive at a negotiated political settlement. Qatar had almost succeeded in making the Taliban agree to open a political office in Doha when the US-Taliban direct talks got disrupted in March 2012. The Taliban had accused American interlocutors of putting additional conditions and backing out from initial commitment to release their five prisoners held in Gitmo in one go rather than in phases. In its keenness to renew talks and arrive at a negotiated political settlement, USA has hinted at handing over control of southern and eastern Afghanistan to the Taliban when all other options fail. Other countries including Pakistan have been quietly playing their part to bring about reconciliation and making Afghanistan peaceful.
Currently France is also making efforts to renew suspended talks between Taliban and USA and to convince the Taliban to hold talks with Afghan government. A meeting hosted by a French non-governmental research institute took place in Paris on 17 December 2012, which was also attended by a two-member delegation of the Taliban. Although the Taliban had no interaction with any of the members belonging to US-NATO or Karzai regime, their participation was seen by observers as a big breakthrough particularly because of the Taliban conciliatory behavior. They even promised giving rights to the women. Probably they seem to have bought the idea of control over half of the country for the time being without a fight. Notwithstanding that they have gained an upper hand in the battlefield, they know that they are not in a position to defeat the invaders. They also know that 352,000 ANSF duly equipped and trained by US and British trainers and backed by 7-10,000 US Special Forces based in five fortified military bases till 2024 would entail more bloodletting. They also cannot ignore Indian heavy presence in Afghanistan which is closely allied with Russia and enjoys friendly relations with Iran, China and Central Asian Muslim Republics, all being anti-Taliban.
The Kabul government was however skeptical about the bona fide of the Taliban representatives who attended the Track II meetings in Japan and France and warned that it won’t take part in such dangerous enterprises in future. Karzai was duped on several occasions by fake peacemakers who pretending as representatives of Mullah Omar killed his half-brother Wali and Prof Burhanuddin.
In a meeting between President Obama and Karzai in Washington on January 11, 2013, it was mutually agreed that all US-NATO combat troops will be replaced by Afghan forces during coming spring and whole transition completed by December 2014 except residual forces, which would stay on till 2024 if they enjoyed legal immunity. Issues of funds to ANSF and immunity to residual US troops are touchy; hence it cannot be said with certainty whether some non-combatant troops would stay back to train/advise ANSF, or all would move out lock stock and barrel as in the case of Iraq. Karzai who had all along opposed setting up of political office in Doha because of his suspicion that he was being marginalized, he reluctantly agreed to the proposal in Washington but later backtracked saying that the proposed office would interact with Afghan High Peace Council (AHPC) and none else.
The third trilateral summit held in London on February 3-4. 2013 was hosted by British Premier and attended by Presidents Zardari and Karzai, Army chiefs, intelligence chiefs, foreign ministers and Chairman AHPC. Cameron extended direct appeal to the Taliban to enter into peace talks. Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to sign up strategic partnership by September this year similar to the ones concluded by Kabul with Washington and Delhi, but Karzai is adding superfluous ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Pakistan raised the Afghan refugee issue and stressed that 1.7 million registered and one million unregistered refugees must be repatriated the soonest due to security concerns. Other than high profile attendance and high-sounding statements, nothing significant could be achieved. It was unrealistic and ambitious on part of the animated participants that political settlement will be achieved within six months. Participants supported the idea of opening up of a political office in Doha to facilitate talks with Taliban.
To give impetus to peace talks, fresh parleys are underway in Doha between the US, Afghanistan and Taliban representatives and Maulana Fazlur Rahman is also in attendance. An ulema conference jointly hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan has been planned next month which is also directed towards securing peace through dialogue with Taliban.
What is noteworthy is that the ones, who had remained averse to talks with the hard line Taliban and had branded them as irreconcilable, are now keen to talk to them. As many as 30-40 countries are chipping in to create conditions conducive for holding peace talks and to end the war. UK, Norway, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar were asked by the US to contact Taliban and help in pushing forward peace process. Notwithstanding the keenness of the three principal stakeholders – Afghanistan, Pakistan, USA – the trio has yet to iron out their differences. Not only the three have yet to come out of the clouds of distrust, each has its own solution to the tangle. While Karzai regime is under the spell of India and cannot take independent decisions, same is true for USA which is under strong influence of Israel and also cannot afford to annoy India. It is being said that considering the high stakes of profiteers like US military, CIA, drug and war merchants and security contractors, war is likely to linger on for quite some time. It is opined that the US is not sincere in ending the futile war and that peace talks are a sheer farce.
Pakistan is the only country which genuinely seeks friendly and stable Afghanistan since it cannot afford a hostile regime in Kabul. War in Afghanistan has caused phenomenal damage to Pakistan. It has constantly called for a negotiated political settlement to end the war. Not only it ignored Kabul’s unwarranted filibustering, it went out of the way to accept all demands of Chairman AHPC including unconditional release of 16 Taliban prisoners in its custody since 2002. Karzai is getting jittery and eying everyone including his political opponents, his patrons in Washington and the west and Pakistan with suspicion. He suspects he is being left out and thinks that peace process could be a trap to destabilize his regime. He is still not comfortable with the opening up of Taliban office in Doha and has put a condition that this office will correspond with AHPC only. He was hoping that the released Taliban prisoners grateful to Salahuddin Rabbani would be reporting to him in Kabul. But he is feeling dejected that the freed birds instead of strengthening his hands have strengthened Mullah Omar.
In utter frustration, Karzai is blaming Pakistan for not keeping a tag on them. In London he suggested that Pakistan was preventing the Taliban from entering into peace talks with his government and was responsible for creating instability in his country. He also annoyed his hosts by alleging that Helmand was peaceful before British troops took control of security of that province in 2006. Karzai government is also doubtful whether the Taliban are genuinely interested in power sharing as conveyed by Pakistan since it doesn’t trust Pakistan. He has no confidence in Track II talks and peace meetings since he fears that all these are meant to sideline him and undermine his government. Karzai is blaming everyone else except himself for the dismal situation in Afghanistan. He no more urges Washington to prolong the stay of foreign troops and says that their departure will lessen violence. He is obstructing peace efforts rather than accelerating them. In short, he has become a pain in the neck for all.
Like fast sinking Karzai regime, India too is feeling perturbed and edgy for being ignored in the whole peace process. It had worked hard to become the leading stakeholder in Afghanistan, but in the endgame its chief patron cannot find any role for India. On finding that Pakistan is fast repairing its fractured relations with USA and is steadily making its place and emerging as the key country in the final talks, India’s frustration is increasing. It is shuddering to imagine the post 2014 scenario in which the Taliban emerge as the predominant force in Afghanistan, and Kashmir intifada gets activated once again and wrath of terrorism seeps out of Afghanistan and Pakistan and flows into occupied Kashmir and India. Hanging of Afzal Guru has triggered resentment in occupied Kashmir and may become a flashpoint. The mere thought is giving nightmares to Indian leadership.
The Taliban representatives besides attending meetings in France and Tokyo have remained in touch with host of countries. They are however keeping their cards close to their chests and have so far not given any indication that they are prepared for talks. They seem to prefer negotiating with the US under the shadow of trustworthy guarantors or other Afghan parties rather than with puppet regime of Karzai. Pashtuns see Karzai as a traitor responsible for deaths of tens of thousands of Afghans and hate him intensely. In a fair and free 2014 presidential election, he will surely be booted out. The US too is not happy with his performance and is not likely to give him backup support secretly in next election. Karzai in the meanwhile is canvassing for his confidante to succeed him so that his interests could be safeguarded.
Keeping in mind the conflicting perceptions of all the stakeholders, one thing is certain that foreign imposed formula will not work. It must not be forgotten that Taliban had been unjustly removed from power and relentlessly persecuted. Yet no amount of force or trickery could cow them down. They are now in a winning position and hold the key to peace in Afghanistan. No headway can be made to settle Afghan tangle without their active participation in all the meetings and accommodating their point of view generously. Omar’s demand for Shariah will have to be accepted. Although the Taliban today are not as united as they were some time ago, yet the Taliban on both sides of the divide have reposed full trust in the leadership of Mullah Omar and are getting on one page to further intensify their offensive drive against US-NATO forces in the coming spring.
He is accepted as Ameer-ul-Momineen by Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Pashtuns view him with approbation. Of late he has softened up his hard line posture and seems inclined to share power with Karzai regime. He is on record having stated that he has no desire for a civil war in post 2014. His leadership will be tested when intra-Afghan dialogue kickoff and he will be required to persuade all militant factions to ceasefire and agree to secure durable peace through dialogue.