End phase still wandering in clouds of uncertainty
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
There is a dire need to renew peace process in Afghanistan which got stalled in mid 2011. It is not only important for safe and timely exit of ISAF but also for Obama to boost up his chances of re-election in November 2012. Unable to win the war in Afghanistan, as a minimum he needs to show progress on the political front by arriving at a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. Had the US not dragged its feet in releasing the five Taliban leaders held in Gitmo in exchange of American soldier in custody of the Taliban as it had promised, Doha initiative would have made some progress by now. Fearing a backlash from the Republicans and also mindful of concerns of Pentagon and Congress, Obama procrastinated and then added a condition that the Taliban should agree to disavow international terrorism and enter into peace dialogue with Karzai regime. It also wanted release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in between the transfer process of Taliban prisoners spread over three months.
The Taliban had wanted immediate release of five prisoners in one go and had reluctantly agreed that they would not be allowed to travel out of Qatar. Unnecessary wrangling by US mediators vitiated the atmosphere which got further compounded because of few incidents in Afghanistan in 2011 in quick succession. Burning of Holy Quran by American soldiers in Bagram airbase, killing of sleeping Afghans in a village near Kandahar by American Sergeant and ruthless night raids by US kill teams angered the Afghans including the Taliban and intensified anti-Americanism. The Taliban didn’t close their political office in Doha but suspended talks with Americans in March 2012, asserting that the latter had broken their pledge. The Taliban got further put off over Afghan-US strategic accord inked on 2 May 2012, which authorized the US military to retain five military bases in Afghanistan till 2024.
In 2011, the US had made frantic efforts to strike a separate peace deal with Sirajuddin Haqqani with the help of ISI. A breakthrough couldn’t be achieved since the Americans had wanted Sirajuddin to ditch Mullah Omar and share power with Karzai. These acts exposed the insincere intentions of the US and were seen by the Taliban as a deliberate effort to divide and weaken Taliban movement. The Taliban therefore decided to step up attacks against US-NATO-ANA and from June 2011 onwards they undertook series of deadly attacks in and around Kabul. 13 September attacks inside Kabul followed by murder of Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani one week later were the deadliest. The attacks disconcerted and miffed the US military and it decided to declare Haqqanis as its chief foe. As a consequence, the latter were branded as Haqqani network (HN) aligned with ISI and housed in North Waziristan (NW).
To give vent to its pent up anger, the US military struck Pakistani posts at Salala on 26 November 2011. The unprovoked attack forced Pakistan to close Shamsi airbase and hpw NATO supply routes and to suspend military and intelligence cooperation with USA. These steps delighted the Taliban and public in Pakistan but irked the US and NATO. In order to make Pakistan mend its ways, the US exerted multiple pressures relentlessly but Pakistan stood its ground saying that it would reopen supply routes only when the US tendered an apology, stopped drone war and gave an assurance that it would respect Pakistan’s sovereignty in future. Chicago Summit in May couldn’t make any headway because of the stalled peace talks with Taliban. The Afghan Taliban at their end remained on the offensive and refused to meet the US representative Marc Grossman in Doha in June 2012.
Rough winds blowing against the US became a bit calmer after Pakistan agreed in early July 2012 to reopen supply routes and that too without any transit fee. As had been anticipated, there has been a sharp increase in drone attacks in NW and terrorist attacks in various parts of Pakistan after the restoration of supplies. Having failed to win over Sirajuddin, the US has decided to designate HN as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Idea behind this move is to degrade HN’s capacity to carry out attacks and to maximize pressure on Pakistan to squeeze HN. It has also renewed its efforts to restore Doha peace initiative so that a peaceful settlement to Afghan tangle could be arrived at. It modified its stance on the procedure of exchange of prisoners by offering to release all the five Taliban prisoners on the same day in exchange for the American prisoner. The latter is to be freed after the Gitmo prisoners reach Doha. This offer was made by Qatar’s interlocutors soon after Grossman failed to meet the Taliban. So far there is no news about the response from Taliban.
While Obama administration is totally focused on coming elections and would like to keep all tricky issues on the sidelines till the election fever is over, it is not difficult to understand that the modified offer is nothing more than a ruse to buy time. Why should the American leadership expect the Taliban Shura to accept the offer when its strongest faction of Haqqanis under Jalaluddin Haqqani is being designated as a FTO and there is no letup in aggressive acts of ISAF? There are strong indications that the American prisoner is in the custody of HN. If so, how will the swap of prisoners materialize, unless the purpose is to create friction between Mullah Omar and Haqqanis, or to pressurize the latter to come to terms with USA?
Interestingly, while the US is striving to divide the Taliban, it has itself got divided. Pentagon and CIA disfavoring reconciliation do not see eye to eye with State department and White House on security issues in Afghanistan. For Panetta and Petraeus, force is the sole solution to convert US defeat into victory and to achieve America’s political, economic and strategic goals. This friction which surfaced after Obama announced his drawdown plan in December 2010 has sharpened over a period of time because of pigheadedness of the US military leadership and dithering policies of Obama. US military’s woes have heightened as a result of sharp increase in soldiers’ suicide cases and killing of US-NATO soldiers by Afghan National Army soldiers. As a consequence, road map for a negotiated peaceful settlement has yet not been evolved and the end phase continues to wander in clouds of uncertainty.