By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
While the US leadership is desperate for peaceful resolution of Afghan imbroglio and a face-saving formula guaranteeing safe exit, it doesn’t have any road map. Half-baked plans lacking in sincerity of purpose are bound to boomerang. The US of late has slightly tilted towards Pakistan since no other player in Afghanistan is in a position to ensure its safe and honorable exit. However, it wants to help execute its plan of quitting Afghanistan on a winning note and leaving a government in Kabul friendly to Washington and ready to serve its regional interests. Inclusion of Taliban in future Afghan government as suggested by saner elements and well wishers is not entirely to the liking of Washington since it tends to give an impression of Taliban’s victory and America’s defeat. It also keeps the main aim of eliminating Al-Qaeda unfulfilled and hence proving the critics right that Afghan policy was flawed in conception and execution.
The US also knows that once coalition troops depart; neither Karzai nor Northern Alliance would stay in power for long. Likewise, America’s keenness to hand over charge of Afghan affairs to India will not be possible. The Taliban have already cautioned that Indian presence will not be tolerated since it will continue to promote American interests. Another problem is about Taliban’s continued refusal to negotiate with Karzai till the withdrawal of occupation forces. The US on the other hand wishes to defeat the Taliban militarily, start handing over less problematic provinces to ANA from July 2011 onwards and letting foreign troops to take a backseat for next five years; after sufficiently weakening the Taliban, negotiate with them from position of strength. In this, no role is foreseen for irreconcilable like Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, or any forgiveness or empathy for Al-Qaeda.
These assumptions hinged on military success in Helmand in last February and next operation planned in September, which in their view would decisively turn the tide of militancy. Not only Helmand operation has run into snags, the architect of new offensive drive in southern and eastern Afghanistan Gen McChrystal has since been booted out unceremoniously. Although the event is being taken in a lighter mood, in actuality it has added to the woes of the US military already facing reverses. High hopes are now being pinned upon Gen Petraeus not realizing that neither there will be any change in war strategy nor in results. The strategy was jointly conceived by the two top commanders duly approved by Admiral Mullen. The only change which Petraeus will introduce will be to once again allow unfettered freedom of action to combat commanders to ask for air, gunship helicopter or artillery support to back up ground attacks or get out of difficult situations. This has been hailed by unit commanders but resented by Afghans since it would upsurge civil casualties. It would further complicate efforts directed towards finding a political settlement. While the Americans would become more unpopular, Taliban popularity would rise further and so would the recruitment of new recruits.
Simultaneous to the military drive to weaken the Taliban, political initiative undertaken by Karzai with the consent of USA and now subtly backed by Pakistan is also trudging forward along the bumpy road. Bumps are created by USA since it is skeptical and in two minds. It wants negotiations on certain impractical conditions which are unacceptable to Taliban. Other stakeholders like India, Israel and Iran also want to retain their nuisance value and their say in the final outcome. Of all the stakeholders, Pakistan is in a better position to bring hard line Taliban on the negotiating table. Karzai tried to take a solo flight but failed. USA and Karzai have now agreed with a pinch of salt that without involvement of Pakistan, political settlement would not be possible. This fact has enhanced Pakistan’s significance.
Both Karzai and Pakistan are now trying to convince US leadership that whether it likes it or not, meaningful peace cannot be achieved without taking Mullah Omar, hpw Jalaluddin, his son Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gulbadin Hikmatyar on board. Cycle of violence in Afghanistan will continue for a longtime even after the exit of foreign troops, which will keep the whole region in a state of instability. Pakistan has offered its services to convince Sirajuddin to agree to enter into negotiations with Karzai regime but has made it clear that it may be possible only if the US shuns its preconceived notions and grant him his due share in power. Gen Kayani played a role in arranging a meeting between Sirajuddin and Karzai in Kabul. Pakistan has also sounded to Washington that in the overall interest of regional peace, it will make sincere efforts to persuade Sirajuddin and other hardliners to sever their alliance with Al-Qaeda. This suggestion has been aired in the backdrop of concerns voiced by some Taliban leaders that their alliance with al-Qaeda has been costly. Pakistan has its own interest in this proposal since Al-Qaeda aligned with TTP has become a potent threat.
It will however be wishful to jump to the conclusion that the Taliban would readily agree to cut off ties with Al-Qaeda when US guns are firing on them and their leaders carrying head money are on UN blacklist. They may possibly agree to get detached once they return to power and then politely ask their ally to depart and operate from elsewhere. Any expectation that Taliban would lock horns with Al-Qaeda and with the help of coalition troops throw them out forcefully or hand over their prominent leaders to USA would be far fetched. Mullah Omar had not done it in 2001 when he was in power and will not do it now when he is in the wilderness.
It must be appreciated that unlike Taliban whose influence is confined to Afghanistan and to an extent in Pakistan only, Al-Qaeda is an international organization having bases in several Arab and African countries. It has developed capability to attract new recruits from all over the world including USA and Europe. Its chief mission is to liberate Palestine from the clutches of Israel and to replace US friendly secular regimes within Arab world. Hence, even if Taliban are won over and Al-Qaeda exits from Afghanistan, the US military will have to confront it in a new battleground within Arabian Peninsula. The battle can be avoided if the US earnestly works towards finding an amicable solution to Palestinian dispute.
One should not rule out possibility of USA resorting to underhand tactics of divide and rule once the Taliban consent to breakaway from Al-Qaeda. USA, India and Israel would leave no stone unturned to instigate the Taliban and make them fight Al-Qaeda. The trio would love to see the macabre game of bloodletting between two most powerful Muslim entities fighting to death. Blackwater would play its role to provoke both sides and also provide funds and equipment to the two opponents but making sure that no side achieves total victory. This method had been put in practice by USA in Iran-Iraq war in 1980s. It is currently playing this game in Pakistan by pitching TTP and BLA against Pakistan security forces while pretending to be friend of Pakistan.
There can be another likelihood that Al-Qaeda after agreeing to vacate Afghanistan shifts to Pakistan, thus not only provoking US military to stay put in Afghanistan but luring it to step into FATA. This will be most dangerous for Pakistan to single handedly tackle Al-Qaeda-Pakistani militant groups’ nexus. In the wake of so many dangerous possibilities, it will be in fitness of things to consider including Al-Qaeda in future political talks rather than isolating it and earning its permanent enmity. This suggestion becomes plausible in the wake of Arab countries abandoning their rigid stance and agreeing to let Al-Qaeda members return to their countries of origin.